Mental Health Issues in College Students on Rise

Last semester another professor and I were talking about how student needs and expectations have changed over our 20-plus years of college teaching. We both agreed that the single biggest difference is the need for mental health support and intervention, something neither of us had been trained for in our otherwise excellent graduate programs.

We had both been to workshops on handling “disruptive” students in the classroom and how to ensure our students do not slip through the ivory tower cracks, but neither of us have ever been offered support for helping students struggling with mental health issues. Maybe, we realized, higher education has not caught up with the increases we have experienced in just the last five years.

Several studies show that there is a rise in mental health disorders among adolescents in general and in college students in particular. The most recent statistics are staggering. According to the American Psychological Association, 73 percent of students experience some sort of mental health crisis during their time in college, and nearly one third of college students report feeling so depressed that they had trouble functioning. More alarming, more than 1,000 college students commit suicide each year.

As faculty members who care deeply about the well-being of our students in our classrooms and out, we struggle with how to respond when a student breaks down in our offices in tears. In just the last two years, I have had students struggling with depression and anxiety related to homelessness, sexual assault, the loss of a parent, financial disasters and so many other issues. Dealing with the demands of college — classwork, club activities, work, socializing — are difficult enough under optimal conditions, but nearly impossible when the student is burdened with mental health crises as well.

In many instances I have referred students to our counseling center, often walking them to the facility in cases of apparent emergency. In those instances, I have always gone with my gut and some minimal training I have received as a mental health advocate through NAMI Greater Wheeling. There are tools available for helping laypersons assess the mental well-being of others, but I have found that without memorizing that information that it is lost on me in moments when I do not want to break the connection with the struggling student to look up their mood or behavior on an online chart.

Even when faculty feel it is in the students’ best interest to seek help from the on-campus counseling center, there is no guarantee resources will be available for those students in a timely fashion or even at all. Just like in the rest of America, mental health services for college students are underfunded. A recent report by Scientific American magazine indicates that college students often wait weeks to be seen by counselors and longer than that if they need psychiatric care. It is estimated that the ratio between licensed mental health workers and college students is around 1 to 1,000 on small campuses and nearly triple that deficit at larger universities.

College is hard enough without the additional burden of mental health issues. Higher education must commit to both train their faculty and staff on how to help struggling students and invest in their counseling centers. Studies have shown that even peer mentors can dramatically improve the quality of life and success of students in need. Action must be taken before we lose some of the best and brightest of our next generation.

Christina Fisanick, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English at California University of Pennsylvania and a 1996 graduate of West Liberty University. She lives in Wheeling.

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