Blog Center for Community Health Partnership & Research Behavioral/Mental Health

Managing the college mental health crisis

Written by Ola Adebayo, MPH candidate and student worker at the Institute for Public Health

As students are preparing for finals and anticipating their summer plans, what often takes a back seat is their mental health. The late-night study sessions turn into early mornings very quickly and the concept of sleep begins to lose its meaning. While coping, or lack thereof, with this academic stress, many college students have to bear other burdens such as work, extracurriculars, or the first time separation from their families. Unfortunately with these new experiences and stressful events comes the onslaught of mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, which can lead to substance use problems.

The College Mental Health Crisis tends to be overshadowed by the belief that college is the best four years of a student’s life. Although there may be a lot of positives of college life: more independence, interacting with diverse people and ideas and experiencing liberation for the first time, those ups often come with downs, and those negatives can affect students for the rest of their lives. Almost half of college students were diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder within the past year, with 73% of students experiencing some level of a mental health crisis during their college years. Even with these high rates, colleges and universities have limited mental health resources. At small and moderately sized universities there is a 1:1000-2000 ratio of certified counselors to students and at larger universities that ratio increases to 1:2000-3500.

What can be done? How do we send the message that a college student’s mental health matters more than grades? First, let’s address the elephant in the room: Does the amount of work assigned equate to rigor? The old rule of thumb stated that a college student should spend two hours outside of class per credit hour, so a student taking 16 credits will spend 32 hours a week doing homework, totaling up to 48 hours a week dedicated to academics. 40% of all students work 30 hours a week to keep up with living expenses. This leaves them with limited time to practice self-care and rest. Schools can provide students with licensed therapists and counselors, and offer self-care activities and coping mechanisms, but if the culture of a college or university centers on academics over mental health, students will always continue to prioritize the former. There needs to be a paradigm shift that allows students to focus on their mental wellbeing with the support of their academic institution.