By Hara Estroff Marano, published on July 1, 2004 - last reviewed on February 28, 2012
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
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.
The Charles Engelhard Foundation, which funds the initiative, awarded grants to 39 schools to develop and evaluate
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
In college, as in the cortex, it may no longer be possible to
separate the cognitive and the emotional.