The new job requirement that takes up much time in higher education has little to do with grading papers or crafting lectures. It’s trying to keep our students academically buoyant and completing our courses amid a growing mental health epidemic. Many well-meaning educators (me included) are merely applying Band-Aids to the problem by allowing students to hand in assignments at semester’s end, looking the other way at disturbing attendance rates and helping them across the finish line, sometimes with limited proficiency. (This doesn’t even speak to the growing numbers of students who stop attending classes and don’t return concerned instructors’ emails.)
Unless colleges devise more creative mental health safety nets, they risk losing or partially preparing a generation of college students.
This crisis was borne out in a landmark 2022 study that surveyed 350,000 students from more than 300 different colleges. It found that between 2013 and 2021 depression increased by 135% and anxiety by 110%. (The number of students suffering from one or more mental health problems doubled.) Native American and Alaskan native students experienced the greatest increase in mental health issues in that study. The 2023 report “The State of Higher Education” found that Hispanic, Black and male students were hit hardest in American colleges. Fifty-five percent of them considered opting out of school due to “emotional stress” and 47% for “mental health” struggles. This doesn’t even address this generation’s profound loneliness.
Aside from depression and general anxiety disorder, one of the biggest contributing factors to students’ academic struggles centers around a brand of mental illness that deserves greater attention: social anxiety. This obsessive concern with, among other things, being judged by peers for words and actions negatively impacted 36% of 7,000 16-29 year-olds in global research. Social anxiety affects not just our identities, but our relationships, mental health and, as another study found, “success in education” (think: negative implications for test performance, completing courses, graduating and, as my own students have confessed, attending classes and engaging in discussions).
Add to this the chronic level of unhealthy stress students feel from carrying crushing credit loads, working daytime jobs to pay for college (as is the case for many at my school) and parental pressure and criticism — which results in maladaptive perfectionism — and it makes sense that so many students are shutting down.
Some schools have been developing approaches that draw on less conventional resources. Penn State’s Red Folder program trains faculty to “recognize, respond, and refer” students who exhibit a change in physical appearance and academic behavior — even food workers are taught to recognize possible eating disorders in students. (I have witnessed a re-engagement in students after I check in on them when they miss multiple classes.)
Cornell’s Let’s Talk program encourages otherwise reluctant students to drop in, sans appointment, for a quick chat with a counselor about a specific problem and potential solutions, and as a way of easing students into the therapeutic process.
Perhaps the most effective means of helping struggling students is by empowering them. The University of Virginia started a peer-staffed counseling service for Black students called Project Rise, after counseling center administrators discovered that 75% of students would reach out to another peer when in distress, as opposed to faculty or staff members. Mental health apps, such as Mindshift for anxiety and Shine for people of color, have been growing in popularity because they are self-paced, can be engaged anywhere at any time, and guarantee anonymity, important to males and people of color, especially, who sometimes fear the stigma of seeking mental health resources.
With some inventive, collaborative planning that gives students more agency and encourages some degree of oversight from faculty and staff we just might keep more of our students academically and emotionally afloat. This means colleges need to make mental health support central and permanent to their mission.
(Andrew Reiner teaches at Towson University and is the author of “Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency.” (HarperOne, 2020).)
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