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Supporting College Students During a Mental Health Crisis

It’s time we change the mental health landscape for today’s youth.

Key points

  • A growing concern for college students and their families is the mental health support available on campus.
  • College students are at increased risk of mental health problems, including stress, depression, and suicide.
  • Awareness and knowledge of mental health services at higher education institutions is crucial.

When families and students explore their college and university options, they consider factors such as a school’s academics, co-curricular activities, student-body makeup, social life, and job placement for alumni.

Today, however, amid the growing mental health crisis in the U.S., an additional consideration has entered the fray—an institution’s track record and resources when it comes to supporting the mental health and well-being of its students. As part of Mental Health Awareness Month, we, as a society, need to recognize this escalating trend and commit to doing more to address the stigma that surrounds mental health, especially as it impacts our young people, and ensure that students have increased access to mental health support.

The need for increased support and awareness is urgent. The current generation of college students includes young adults who are coming of age in the wake of a pandemic, which entailed a worldwide shutdown and its ensuing isolation. Add to that landscape the prevalence of social media and the social expectations that come with it, and it is no surprise that students are facing an unprecedented array of mental health challenges.

According to a 2023 study by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation, 41 percent of students were considering dropping out of college or university, citing emotional stress and personal mental health as the top two reasons. A separate study in the spring of 2022 from the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment found that 75 percent of students reported moderate or serious psychological distress. Further, about 1,100 college students commit suicide each year, according to the National Institutes of Health. A student’s suicide has a significant impact on their family as well as their peers, faculty, staff, and administrators.

As U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said during a Senate hearing in June 2023, due to the “stubborn and pervasive stigmatization of mental health” that prevents young people “from seeking help and receiving the long-term recovery supports they need,” America needs to invest in “local-level programs, policies and physical elements of a community that facilitate bringing people together.”

While local-level programming is certainly needed to combat the stigma and connect young adults with increased resources, even more important is the establishment of a national framework that puts mental health at the forefront of student needs. This initiative should increase awareness and knowledge of mental health services at higher education institutions throughout the United States and continually encourage the expansion of this support. It is essential that prospective students and their families are equipped with comprehensive knowledge and data points about the availability of the services and forms of mental health support that they may need on campus. Yet, to date, this crucial information has been glaringly absent for families when they are researching their options.

In an effort to address this problem, one recently launched initiative saw the Ruderman Family Foundation team up with The Princeton Review to create a comprehensive database on the availability of mental health resources on college and university campuses nationwide. As a society, we need to ensure that mental health needs are a priority across the board for today’s youth; only then will that filter down to a greater commitment from our colleges on the local level.

Institutions are also making strides in creating a more supportive culture and environment, even before students begin their first class. Bennington College faculty and staff, for example, assist first-year students with managing their ideas and expectations of college life. The array of initiatives emphasizes purposeful work in the world, activities promoting well-being, access to mental health counseling, an emphasis on restorative justice, and building closer connections to faculty and peers. It also attempts to empower students through arts, events, and programs to become more resilient, better attuned to their own needs, and more aware of available resources.

It is imperative that we guide students through the process of making informed decisions about their mental health in an environment void of any stigmatization or prejudice, while providing leadership, faculty, and staff with evidence-based approaches and recommendations for promoting a campus culture of caring when it comes to mental health.

More is being done than ever before to ensure that mental health support is a priority for our institutions of higher education, yet much more needs to be done to reach students before, during, and after a crisis. No one should feel ashamed or belittled or isolated because they are dealing with anxiety, depression, stress, loneliness, or any other mental health challenge. We must not stigmatize anyone who reaches out for help.

This Mental Health Awareness Month, our message is this—it’s time we change the landscape of how mental health is addressed and prioritized for today’s youth and revolutionize the way schools address the issue of mental health on their campuses.

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