Education: A College Cure?

Mental health problems have become so prevalent among college students that they are not just overwhelming campus counseling centers—they now threaten the core mission of the university. "It's an important nationwide problem in higher education," says Steven Hyman, provost of Harvard University.

A group of educators and mental health experts is proposing a novel solution—overhauling the way classes are taught in order to engage students more actively and completely in learning. The idea is to make the college experience itself an antidote to widespread student depression, anxiety and binge drinking. "Both alcohol abuse and depression are forms of disengagement. We think engagement is the solution," says Donald W. Harward, president emeritus of Bates College and head of the Bringing Theory to Practice Project.

There's no formula for engagement. It could be encouraged through courses that employ inquiry-based problem-solving or through course-based community service, where academic objectives are woven into civic activity. A student in a statistics course might teach a math class in a local rehab center, for example.

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The Charles Engelhard Foundation, which funds the initiative, awarded grants to 39 schools to develop and evaluate engaged-learning strategies.

Little data tie student engagement to impact on emotional distress. It's not that there isn't a powerful link, but that the clinical world confines itself to therapeutic solutions. Modern neuroscience, however, suggests that stemming mental distress through interactive education may be particularly effective. Take psychotherapy, a form of engaged interactive learning. Imaging studies show it produces changes in the cortex—the thinking brain—to modulate mood states. It alters how people monitor and react to negative stimuli.

In college, as in the cortex, it may no longer be possible to separate the cognitive and the emotional.

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