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The Mental Health Crisis in Colleges and Universities

How can we support the mental health of college students?‎

Key points

  • The rates of students' mental health issues are increasing, but many universities are not providing adequate ‎services to meet those demands.‎
  • Many college students report academic stress as the ‎single most dominant factor affecting their mental ‎health.‎
  • Instructors can become part of the solution by teaching ‎with the holistic well-being of students in mind.‎

Although the rates of mental health challenges have been on the rise among college students, many colleges and universities are not providing adequate services to meet those demands. The systematic structure of universities puts many college students at risk of experiencing mental health challenges—yet once they do, accessing counseling services is often a slow and arduous process.

I argue that we must expedite our understanding of mental health issues and immediately begin to treat these future scholars and leaders of our society. But just what is triggering mental health challenges for college students?

According to one study published in Frontiers in Psychology, “Academic stress may be the single most dominant stress factor that affects the mental well-being of college students.” Especially for college students, the researchers continued, “late adolescence and emerging adulthood are transitional periods marked by major physiological and psychological changes, including elevated stress.” In other words, the coursework and novelty of intellectual life induce a significant amount of stress for many college students.

Moreover, students tend to undergo periods of personal transformation as they move away from family, childhood friends, and often their hometowns. At the same time, they also have to navigate a pressing academic load, which puts many college students under stress.

College should be a time of growth, and change is inherently uncomfortable. Nonetheless, it's critical that college students not endure any unnecessary suffering.

Did COVID-19 Worsen College Students' Mental Health?

Evidence points to yes. According to a study published in the Journal of American College Health, researchers found that “symptoms of depression and stress were higher during the pandemic compared to data collected in 2017.”

Yet many students report that they haven't seen an emergency response from their colleges and universities to meet the increasing demands for students' mental health. COVID-19 disrupted any sense of normalcy that we grew accustomed to before the pandemic. Nonetheless, I argue that we have yet to notice a systematic change to the structure of colleges and universities that will promote better mental health practices for students.

What Can Instructors Do?

Instructors can become part of the solution. A recent study showed that instructors can teach with the holistic well-being of students in mind. Writing in the journal Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, the authors note that “many students report high levels of stress and mental health problems, and instructors may be able to help their students by designing the course with student well-being in mind.” Therefore, instructors can play a proactive role in fostering healthy classroom environments for all students.

What Can Students Do?

Students are more resilient than they often realize, and a significant portion of the solution lies at their disposal. Often, even when things look bleak, we have some power to control and change our situation.

Humans are born to connect with other humans. Of course, doing so will always come with some risk—but even so, we must find healthy ways to connect, because mental health issues worsen when the student experiences them in isolation. Students, therefore, must learn how to relate to people.

This is especially true for immigrants, who often navigate more challenging transitions than their native peers. According to a study published in American Psychologist, “immigrant and refugee youth should experience better outcomes to the extent that they (a) maintain close connections to people and places that provide a sense of safety, comfort, and encouragement when navigating this difficult life transition and (b) find ways to create a sense of connection and belonging to the new people, places, communities, and social networks in which they now live.”


There are nourishing and non-nourishing people in this world. Nourishing people are people with whom interactions are positive and healthy. Non-nourishing people tend to view social interactions as transactional and extractive because they are not looking for mutually beneficial interactions. Some people, of course, do not fit neatly into either of these two categories—instead, they coalesce between nourishing and non-nourishing, depending on the circumstances.

When you are experiencing mental health challenges, make sure to mainly interact with nourishing people, who are going to invest in lifting you. Depending on where you are, nourishing people may be in short supply, so it is worth the investment to proactively find them.

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