The University of Iowa is turning its student union hotel into a mental health center. North Carolina’s state colleges are expanding mental health and crisis services with about $8 million from Gov. Ray Cooper. Florida State University created a new course to train faculty and staff to spot and help students battling trauma.

Community colleges are stepping up, too. San Diego City College’s “Mental Health for Math” program embeds stress management in classes to reduce students’ fears of failing. And Texas’ Alamo Colleges District offers mental health services, food, housing, and childcare—all to alleviate students’ anxiety and meet basic needs.

These colleges and many more nationwide recognize that students are struggling with severe emotional stress, anxiety, and depression. They also know that the costs of ending formal education at high school can last a lifetime. And they’re doing something about it.

A new Lumina Foundation-Gallup study on mental health in higher education shows; these actions are urgently needed. Even after campus COVID restrictions and fears eased, stress remains high:

  • Over the past six months, 41 percent of students pursuing associate or bachelor’s degrees considered leaving school. More than half cited emotional stress, and nearly half gave personal mental health reasons. Almost seven in 10 bachelor’s students say stress might force them out of school.
  • Some also cited the stress of paying for college or working full-time while in school.
  • Women, those from low-income families, and younger students (ages 18-24) indicated much higher stress levels than men, those from financially secure families, and older students.
  • About 71 percent of women and 77 percent of young adults say stress prevents them from enrolling.

When asked to describe their stress, many students said coursework could be overwhelming, particularly when combined with heavy workloads and caregiving duties. Some said they battle depression.

So at a time when more jobs than ever require education after high school, fewer students are enrolling or staying in college. A new National Student Clearinghouse report shows that students earning a first-time degree or credential fell for the first time in a decade in the 2021-22 academic year, with nearly 59,000 fewer graduates than the previous year. Those earning first-time associate degrees fell sharply (7.6 percent), followed by bachelor’s degree earners.

No quick access to help

To reverse these trends, we have to understand the causes.

Some students surveyed by Gallup described how hard it is to find mental health help. Brenda J. said when she asked for help with stress due to difficult courses, a school advisor said, “You have to make that program work in order to get your degree. I can’t help you with that.”

Tony Y. said it became clear to him that there was no direct access to counselors. An advisor told him, “You just submit your document, and they should get back to you in a couple of weeks.” Added student Danamarie E.: “I think colleges need to help more people cope with their anxiety or workload. I know a lot of kids that go to school, and they end up having a nervous breakdown.”

Dr. Zainab Okolo, Lumina strategy officer and licensed mental health clinician, reinforced this point in a recent podcast, “The current national average for wait time is 7-10 months for counseling services. When I was an academic counselor, the wait time was about two months. For a student in crisis, the delayed access to services can prove to be too long.”

Building on momentum

That’s why interventions such as North Carolina’s after-hours crisis hotline, Florida’s trauma training, and Iowa’s mental health center—offering onsite clinical care and counseling—are so important. Lumina is also leading efforts to break down mental health barriers for students by supporting programs and raising awareness, including a recent discussion with U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.

There’s no simple answer to the escalating mental health crisis, but this is the perfect time to build on the momentum from these pioneering actions. By creating the right resources, training, and space, with expert counselors and sustainable funding, more students will return to healthy lives and learning.

Related news:
MWSU: mental well-being linked to graduation rates | KQTV2 | May 10, 2023

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