Hate-crime, anorexia, trauma, rape, psychosis, suicide: They're words no one likes to utter, but neglecting to do so can be a tragic (and costly) failure to address the realities of college life. New research shows that now more than ever campuses must take preventative steps to protect student mental health.
UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute released "The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2016," an annual survey that offers a glimpse of issues new college students face. The results are based on responses from 137,546 first-time, full-time students who started at 184 schools in fall 2016. The data is weighted to reflect the more than 1.5 million first-time, full-time students who started college at 1,568 four-year institutions nationwide last year. It dates back to 1966.
For the first time in the study’s five-decade history, fewer than half of the respondents rated their mental health above average. More students are likely to need support — not just from counseling services, from all campus networks devoted to student well-being.
Key mental health insights
- 1 in 8 students said they are frequently depressed.
- 1 in 5 reported having a learning disability, ADHD or a chronic illness.
- 13.9% said they expect to seek out personal counseling in college. That number has been increasing since a low of 3.5% in 1991.
While those figures may strike some as moderate, it’s important to remember that a single mental health crisis can have a campus-wide impact, increasing the number of students who are vulnerable or at-risk.
Likewise, if your campus counseling resources are no more robust than they were in the 1990s, now is the time to make room in the budget for an upgrade. Students in need of the services will become quickly discouraged — and more endangered — if they encounter long waits, crowds and harried or distracted staff in the counseling center.
The UCLA survey also shows students faced new and increased stressors in the past year, difficulties that don’t necessarily cause mental health tragedies but can easily factor into greater incidence of crisis.
First, the responses reveal the most politically polarized student population in the study’s history:
- 42.3%, the lowest number ever, identified as politically middle-of-the-road.
- 35.5% identified as far left.
- 22.3% identified as far right.
- 68.1% of right-of-center students rated their tolerance of others with different beliefs “strong” or “somewhat strong.”
- 82% of middle-of-the-road students rated their tolerance of others with different beliefs “strong” or “somewhat strong.”
- 86.6% of left-of-center students rated their tolerance of others with different beliefs “strong” or “somewhat strong.”
The study authors recommend colleges and universities take care to implement activities devoted to building acceptance of difference and engendering dialog among those with contrasting views. These conversations will offer students a constructive outlet for political tensions, which might otherwise contribute to mental duress.
In addition to the political stress, the study shows students have become increasingly concerned about the cost of college.
- 55.9% have some concern about financing college.
- 13.3% have major concerns about paying for school.
- 50.4% said there is a “very good chance” they will get a job to help pay for college expenses.
Woman and students of color were most likely to say they had “major concerns” about paying for school. Those populations were also more likely to say they expected to work to help pay for school. It’s important for campus networks to recognize such students may experience more stress and exhaustion as a result of their financial worries.
Offering classroom accommodations for things like panic attacks is a good start when it comes to showing support for mental health issues, but it’s only a start. Teachers and students still need to work together to ensure all students can accomplish their goals.
Increasing awareness among those who interact with students regularly is the best way to prevent tragedies. Faculty, administrators, cafeteria workers, janitors, bookstore employees — all should be encouraged to speak up if they notice someone showing signs of acute mental distress like suicidality. Even the best counseling service cannot be all-seeing. Workers, friends, RAs and teachers who see a depressed or anxious student daily are the most likely to notice a shift in behavior. Let these stakeholders know they, too, are responsible for student wellness.
With all that said, it’s also important to recognize that even those with severe mental disorders can have remarkable resilience. There’s no reason to assume they can’t handle college. Indeed, some of those who arrive at school with a troubled history may end up thriving. Your college could prove to be just the refuge they need from past emotional triggers. Your school could become the place they blossom and discover a host of previously unknown strengths. Let your campus be among those that make such transformation possible.