Across the nation, colleges are scrambling to keep up with an ever-growing demand for mental health services from students struggling to get by. This is according to a report put out by Penn State’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health. The report found that while some variables, including rates of prior mental health treatment, appear to be holding steady, others are on the rise.1
One category that’s rising is the number of students seeking help at counseling services, which rose by 30 percent between 2009 and 2016 at 93 schools surveyed throughout the United States. Hand-in-hand with this rise has been a “slow but consistent growth” in the number of students reporting feelings of depression, anxiety and social anxiety. This is true even as the number of reports of family problems, substance abuse and other stressors has either remained the same or decreased.
Other key findings from the study of more than 100,000 students include the following:
1 – An increase of almost 10 percent in the number of students who reported having seriously considered suicide at one point. This was in spite of the fact that the number of students who had attempted suicide remained “relatively flat.”
2 – A 3 percent increase in the number of people reporting instances of self-injury.
3 – The average demand for counseling center services grew at least five times faster than enrollment in the school itself.
Understanding the Factors Behind the Trend
When trying to find reasons for this trend, the report’s authors are quick to warn against being simplistic. “The frank reality is that the mental health of our college students is multi-faceted, multimodal and complexly embedded in overlapping macro/ micro cultures.”3
In short, it’s complicated.
Not only that, but the trend could also be seen as hopeful because it represents an increase in students seeking help. In the past, these students may have suffered in silence, unaware of the help available to them or too afraid of the stigma to take advantage of it.
This shift toward more students utilizing mental health resources at their schools was precisely one of the goals of the 2004 Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act. The act funneled tens of millions of dollars to college campuses in order to educate schools about mental health and suicide prevention and to ensure students knew where and how to seek help. In other words, schools have been trying to increase the number of students visiting their counseling centers, so an increase in appointments could be as much a sign of success as a sign of trouble.4
Based on the data, there’s reason to believe this may at least be part of the answer. True, there have been reported increases in self-injury and suicidal ideation. But even when combined, these increases still represent only a fraction of the total increase of students seeking help. Meanwhile, the majority of figures measured—including reports of experiencing a traumatic event or loved ones expressing concern about one’s alcohol or drug use—have remained more or less flat.
But frequency is not the same as severity, and here there does appear to have been a sharp jump. In 2000, counselors reported that just 16 percent of their clients had severe psychological problems, compared to 44 percent in 2010—the year the Center for Collegiate Mental Health study began.5
It’s a shift Lauren Weitzman, director of the University of Utah Counseling Center, has watched firsthand during her more than 20 years working in collegiate mental health.
“In terms of issues, there hasn’t been much of a change. Depression and anxiety have always been the top two,” she told Foundations Recovery Network in an interview. “What is different is the number of students in crisis needing to be seen more quickly.”
The demand has been so great that the center found itself changing how it operates, including adding same-day intake to the list of services they offer.
More than 2,000 miles away, the University of Connecticut’s counseling center is undergoing similar strains. According to its director, Elizabeth Cracco, the center has seen a 20 percent increase in service demand every year for the last five years. As for severity, Cracco reports a 57 percent increase in the number of students sent to hospitals for evaluation since the center began tracking the number just three years ago.
One popular theory for this change blames the trend on a lack of resilience among students who have long lived under the sheltered care of “helicopter parents.”6 Another attributes it to a chronic lack of free playtime crucial to the development of a child’s emotional well-being.7
“Students don’t usually site this reason–but faculty and staff do–that students are coming from increasingly structured and facilitated environments with high parental involvement,” Cracco told Foundations Recovery Network. “College can be an abrupt transition to a time and situations that require far more self-sufficiency and self-regulation in all domains from going to class, pacing and completing assignments, and initiating and maintaining one’s own social life.”
What students do often cite, Cracco says, is the economic strain their education places on their families and the resulting increase in academic pressure. Sure enough, if there’s one measurement that seems to be giving the rise in students’ mental health crises a run for its money, it’s average tuition costs, which rose by nearly 300 percent in the last 20 years for in-state students attending a public university.8
How to Help
Cracco’s message to students is this: It’s okay to feel like you’re struggling to adapt when first starting college. In fact, it’s normal. Her advice? Stick to the basics. Start with sleeping enough, exercising, eating well and spending time with friends. These, she says, “are foundational.”
“That said, there is wisdom in having a great support crew,” she added. “Students will do well to utilize the many resources on campus from advisers to academic coaching centers for academic issues, wellness services for stress related prevention and peer-based groups and students activities for social connection.”
For those who see someone struggling to get by, start with offering the student a safe place, a chance to be heard. Make sure you’re aware of what support services are offered and how to use them. Who knows–even if you don’t end up needing them, you may run into someone who does.
Written by Tamarra Kemsley