College students are dealing with mental health issues at some of the highest rates in decades, according to a growing body of research about young adults’ emotional wellbeing, and their schools aren’t always equipped to help them through it.
According to researchers at UCLA, which has been surveying freshman classes for five decades, the emotional health of incoming students is at its lowest point in 30 years. For their 2014 study, researchers asked more than 153,000 first year students to assess their overall mental health — and participants rated it at the lowest level that UCLA has ever recorded. Nearly one in 10 students said they frequently felt depressed.
A different study by the American College Health Association found that more than half of colleges students have experienced “overwhelming anxiety” sometime over the past year. More than 30 percent of them said they have felt so depressed “that it was difficult to function.” Nearly 40 percent said they “felt things were hopeless.”
And according to new research from the University of South Carolina, college students’ mental health issues are directly related to their outstanding student debt, which currently tops one trillion dollars on a national scale. Students who take out bigger loans struggle with more emotional issues and “poorer psychological functioning,” regardless of their family’s socioeconomic status.
For years, university administrators and campus counselors have been reporting an uptick in the number of students seeking help for mental health issues. But some counseling programs may not be prepared to handle the recent influx.
A recent report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State found that many students are dealing with serious conditions when they show up at their campus counseling centers, but staff shortages mean they’re often faced with lengthy delays when they try to make an appointment. Ben Locke, who heads the center, says that mental health treatment really shouldn’t be put off in this way.
“One out of every two students coming into counseling centers nationally has already been in counseling before,” Locke told WHYY News. “One of three have already taken a psychiatric medication, one out of four have self-injured, one out of three has seriously considered suicide at some point in their lives.”
Indeed, there’s been some recent evidence illustrating what can happen when students aren’t connected to the health services they need. Some campus communities are struggling to deal with a rise in student suicides — which is the primary cause of death among college students, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. For instance, there have been four suicides at Tulane University this school year alone, leaving the student body reeling.
“It’s a challenging time,” Dusty Porter, Tulane’s vice president of student affairs, told a reporter at Inside Higher Ed. “But hopefully we’ll be better in terms of our services after it’s all said and done. We’re trying to mourn the loss of the students, but also trying to take stock of what we’re doing.”
Like Tulane, schools across the country are working to improve in this area. Last fall, more than 50 colleges and universities signed onto a program that aims to strengthen mental health services on campus by holding schools to a checklist of best practices. Around the same time, the Higher Education Mental Health Alliance released a 26-page guide to help colleges figure out how to better respond to suicides.
Some states are considering legislative action, too. Following the suicide of Madison Holleran, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania — a 19-year-old girl who was a track star at her New Jersey high school — nearly 9,000 people have signed onto a petition in support of a proposed state law that would strengthen colleges’ suicide prevention programs. “This law would allow us to keep Madison’s legacy alive, and help other young adults from choosing suicide as a way of escaping the pressures of college expectations,” the petition reads.