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Emotional stress is causing more students to leave college and keeping others from enrolling, at a time when people need post-high school education more than ever—and the country desperately needs their talent.
“Student mental health is in crisis,” the American Psychological Association says, as students juggle a dizzying array of personal life challenges. The topic is on the minds of the entire nation, from parents to faculty, college administrators, and funders. While it is true that mental health issues have long been with us, we have never had such motivation to address them. I think squandering that momentum at this time would be shameful.
A new Gallup poll lays out the stark details: The study found that 71 percent of women and 77 percent of people ages 18 to 24 said stress influenced their decision not to enroll, compared to 57 percent of men.
The report, “Stressed Out and Stopping Out: The Mental Health Crisis in Higher Education,” confirms what others have shown. The Healthy Minds Study from last year found that more than 60 percent of college students appeared to have at least one mental health problem. A study by the National College Health Association found that nearly three quarters of students reported psychological distress.
Another Gallup poll last year found that mental health was cited twice as often as the pandemic, the cost of college, or the difficulty of coursework as the reason students left school.
It won’t be easy to tackle the causes of growing anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and other issues among today’s students. Meeting the needs of a student population that is older and faces greater financial and family responsibilities will demand customized care.
The national response also requires intentional work with students of color and those from other groups who are less likely to seek counseling services, which has created a treatment gap. A 2020 study at Bennington College shows the scope of the challenge: Students reported several barriers to mental health services and frequently had little understanding about how to obtain counseling. For example, students who lacked insurance were unaware they could apply for financial assistance to pay for services. Many also found the application process demeaning, which undercut their willingness to seek help.
Resources are a problem on many campuses. Counseling centers are frequently stretched thin, and some schools simply are not devoting the funding that is needed.
It’s important to note that we are seeing improvements. The positive steps include telehealth, peer counseling, and other assistance. In many college towns, local groups and government agencies offer off-campus resources.
At the University of Maryland, students may take a one-credit course to learn emotional regulation. The course even includes basic therapeutic skills, such as how to identify signs of anxiety and improve time management.
We should also acknowledge the importance of faculty. They often interact one-on-one with students and can serve as first responders in supporting mental health. Faculty are increasingly asking to be compensated for this work and are seeking tools and resources to help. As the chorus over mental health grows, some have called for a back-to-basics approach, including making mental health first aid training as common as CPR.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, speaking at last fall’s Mental Health in Higher Education Roundtable, said that our growing national awareness can help gather support for the bold action we need at this time.
“We have to find ways to model what it’s like to talk about our mental health, to help people understand that mental health is health,” he said.
“It’s part of our health—no less important than our physical health.”
Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation and author of the book “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.”Back to News