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Rethinking the College Mental Health Crisis

Is our definition of resilience too narrow? Research says yes.

This is part three of a three-part series about mitigating the college mental health crisis.

Source: Pixabay

The only thing that seems more popular than fidget spinners in education is talk about resilience and grit. You can barely enter a conversation without it coming up. It comes in handy these days. There’s a lot to spin our wheels over.

Between the hypercompetitive global economy and rapid landscape changes, we barely know what skills we’ll need tomorrow. The polarized socio-political climate is leaving everyone on edge. It’s vulnerable times for students, faculty, administrators, and institutions. It’s hard to survive, never mind thrive.

Highly romanticized ideals of being able to bounce back dominate our conversations. We can’t get enough of setback to comeback stories. But like general society, when resilience on college campuses is chalked up to pulling bootstraps and wearing your Suck it Up T-shirt, we might be reinforcing problems rather than solving them.

There’s a lot of talk about how “soft” this generation is—that there are students going into crisis over roommate woe’s and melting over getting B’s. I don’t deny this sometimes happens. I’ve had students fight me over A’s versus A minuses. But, these examples sell us short. I’ve also had students who have defied incredible odds—persisting through grueling circumstances and treacherous obstacles.

At my institution, I was so impressed by the kind of resilience I saw amongst many of my students in my classroom, it made me want to find out what was behind it. After a five-year research project, one of the key findings was quite the opposite of the mainstream portrayals of “neediness”. Movement towards resilience doesn’t happen in isolation. Nor is it linear or neat. It’s messy work, with healing emerging through community and solidarity.

When we put all our eggs in the basket of individual behavior explanations, we miss opportunities to expand the conversation. To rethink resilience, we need to add some new words to our vocabulary:

1. Systems lens. Ignoring social context leads to a misdirected analysis of the problem. This was the discovery of an interdisciplinary research team comprised of Jessica Shaw, Kate McLean, Bruce Taylor, Kevin Swartout, and Katie Querna. In Beyond Resilience: Why We Need to Look at Systems too, they draw upon social network analysis theory to help us stop romanticizing resilience. As social scientist Brené Brown puts it, we need to stop “gold-plating grit”—meaning we can’t pretend that the harrowing process of enduring and persisting is glamorous, or that it happens (or doesn’t happen) in a vacuum. In Beyond Resilience, the research team emphasizes that instead, we need to draw our attention to the conditions that create the need for us to be resilient in the first place. When we look at our campuses through a systems lens, we’re less inclined to fall for popular myths or framings that either hype or stigmatize individuals, rather than look at the bigger picture.

2. Consciousness. Once we wield our systems lens, we can stay woke to conditions that create barriers and damage human progress. We live in a social context rife with disparities, prejudice and ism’s. When we step across the threshold of campus, these conditions have been shown to effect outcomes including performance, persistence, and well-being. When we ignore context, we reinforce, rather than work to mitigate longstanding tides of discrimination perpetrated against marginalized groups based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, religion, and other social identity categories. Consciousness isn’t just about knowing there are disparities—it’s about taking action.

3. Human centered. Education should not be a business. Yes, institutions need money to keep their campuses afloat; budgets need to be balanced. But when a business model dominates, and there’s more emphasis on enrolling students and recruiting faculty than there is on helping them thrive, we miss valuable opportunities to protect, preserve, and leverage human potential. When policies and practices are not focused on bringing out the best in people, campuses suffer the consequences of demoralization, burnout, disengagement, disenfranchisement, and drop-out.

4. Integration. Mental health prevention and response services have long been separated from health care and educational service delivery. Today, we have developments in brain and behavioral science that show the value of adopting integrated approaches. We now have the resources to teach emotional regulation skills that cultivate resilience across the campus spectrum. Instead of saving them for when people are in dire straights, they should be built into the fabric of institutions. Given the historic stigma and discrimination against those experiencing mental health issues, along with the escalating prevalence of anxiety, and ongoing systemic barriers that disproportionately affect marginalized groups, we need to do more than offer individual help or counseling beyond closed doors for emergency moments. We need to make sure that there’s a collective effort to ensure policies and practices support cultivation of resilience for all.

This series highlights some of the key re-framings needed to help us look at the college mental health crisis with greater clarity. By looking at it through a generational and systems lens, we can begin to poke holes at prevailing myths that today’s students are “needy” and “weak”, and instead draw upon the realities of our social context to see that we need to create a campus culture where cultivating resilience is prioritized. There’s much work to be done to see beyond the traditional finger pointing, or narrow and oversimplified explanations, to not only expand our definitions of resilience, but also foster it.

What do you think?

Have you seen a decline in mental health in your own life, or on your campus? Do you have ideas and experiences that can help us rethink this further?

We must get this right. Because of its magnitude, a one-sided conversation doesn’t do much good. Please share your own process of rethinking, including your stories, thoughts, and questions in the comments section below. We have a lot to unlearn and relearning to do together. I try to read all respond to as many points as possible. #onlywe

Dr. Kristen Lee, known as “Dr. Kris”, is an award-winning behavioral science professor, clinician and author from Boston, Massachusetts.
 Dr. Kris is a licensed independent clinical social worker known for her advocacy in promoting increased mental health integration in social policies and institutions to facilitate access and improved health outcomes in the U.S. and across the globe. She regularly works with students and faculty and consults with Universities and Colleges to mitigate the college mental health crisis. She is the author of RESET: Make the Most of Your Stress, Winner of the Next Generation Indie Book Awards Motivational Book of 2015, and the upcoming Mentalligence: A New Psychology of Thinking.