July 30, 2020

Student Mental Health Crisis: What’s Wrong & How Can We Fix It?

By Wellnest

Few people realize how bad the student mental health crisis has gotten.

While this article isn’t focused on COVID’s impact on student mental health, the pandemic certainly made things worse. Students have said the pandemic has made it harder to access mental health care, and rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideations have increased compared to last year.

In this article, we walk you through the data, dive into the causes, and advocate that 1) mental health stigma is the primary obstacle to overcome, and 2) universities must invest more into student wellness resources. 

Finally, we give a shout out to some of the amazing and passionate organizations working to improve student mental health.

Why Prioritize Student Mental Health?

75% of mental illness cases begin by age 24.

For the population as a whole, the average delay between onset of mental illness symptoms and treatment is 11 years.

We must change this. 

To make lasting progress on mental health, we need to build a culture where mental illness is accepted, understood, and properly treated.

And this starts in our schools.  

What’s the Student Mental Health Crisis?

Student mental health is not improving – it’s actually getting worse in many areas. 

Rates of anxiety and depression on college campuses have been rising for years – along with eating disorders, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and self harm.

Source: VICE Media

VICE analyzed over 150,000 student surveys taken from 2007–2018. The data suggest that mental health de-stigmatization efforts have been effective. 

The chart shows that as perceived public stigma decreases, the percent of students in therapy increases, but so do rates of depression, anxiety, and other ailments. It’s unclear whether the trends are the result of higher rates of mental illness or higher rates of reporting these concerns, though the latter seems more likely.  

Either way, the statistics are extremely concerning.

Student Mental Health Statistics

  • Suicide is the #2 leading cause of death among students. 
  • 2 in 5 college students experience a significant mental health issue.
  • 2 in 5 students aged 14 or older with a mental health issue drop out of school.
  • 2 in 3 students with anxiety or depression don’t seek treatment.
  • 1 in 5 students have had thoughts of suicide.
  • 1 in 10 college students have attempted suicide.
  • In 2017, suicide claimed the lives of 5,016 males and 1,225 females between the ages 15 and 24 in the US. That equates to 17 youth suicides every day.
  • The suicide rate for females between the ages of 15 and 19 doubled from 2007 to 2015, and for boys it rose by 31%. 

Here’s a helpful infographic on suicide from NAMI.

Student Mental Health Statistics During COVID-19

According to Inside Higher Ed

  • 1 in 4 people aged 18 to 24 seriously considered suicide in June.
  • 3 in 5 college students surveyed said they were “moderately,” “very” or “extremely” worried about their mental health; 
  • Nearly 7 in 10 students said the pandemic has caused them more financial stress – a known predictor of student mental health.

Worryingly, students have said that mental health care has been harder to access during the pandemic. 

  • 6 in 10 students who looked for mental health care during the pandemic said it was more difficult to access mental health care than before.

Additionally, minority groups and essential workers were much more likely to report considering suicide. The pandemic has put extra strain on everyone and, now more than ever, we need student mental health to be prioritized.

What’s Driving the Student Mental Health Crisis?

In general, students are particularly vulnerable to mental illness. Students are in a critical developmental stage defined by ambiguity, intense pressure, and often isolation from family and friends. 

But that doesn’t explain why key statistics are trending the wrong way. Mental health is a very complex issue, and it’s difficult to point to a single cause. 

That being said, we want to highlight two factors that we believe are largely responsible (and addressable):

1) Mental health stigma

2 in 3 students with anxiety or depression don’t seek help, and concern of stigma is the number one reason why. 

Here’s a great article on the catastrophic effects of mental health stigma. 

What’s mental health stigma?

Mental health stigma is when someone sees you in a negative way because of mental illness. Stigma has three components: a lack of knowledge, negative attitudes, and discrimination.

Here’s an example of how mental health stigma works—from Peter Haddad and Isabelle Haddad in the British Association of Psychopharmacology:

Public surveys show that eating disorders and problematic use of alcohol and other drugs are frequently seen as an individual’s own fault. 
People with these disorders, and also depression and anxiety, are often viewed as needing to ‘pull themselves together’. 
Such views would rarely be associated with cancer or heart disease. In reality the cause of most mental health problems, like most physical health problems, is complex and multiple risk factors contribute. 
Some factors can be modified which is important as it gives people some control over their health, for example eating a healthy diet to reduce the risk of heart disease or ensuring a sensible work/life balance to reduce the risk of depression. 
However many risk factors for physical and mental health problems are beyond an individual’s control, for example inheriting an increased vulnerability to develop heart disease, depression or some other medical condition. 
Another example of a risk factor, beyond the control of the sufferer, is childhood abuse and neglect which increases the risk for developing depression, problematic use of alcohol and other drugs, eating disorders, personality disorder and psychosis in later life.

Most students avoid or delay treatment for mental illness because of mental health stigma. Stigma, prejudice, and discrimination against people with mental illness is still a very real problem.

Why is stigma so hard to beat?

Mental health problems have been associated with stigma and discrimination throughout history and across different cultures. 

It is a deeply rooted phenomena that will require considerable time and money to progress on. Even today, the media and entertainment industry regularly play a role in perpetuating stigmatizing stereotypes of people with mental health problems. 

Here’s a really good article on it. 

How can we reduce stigma? 

Recently we have begun to understand how stigma impacts one’s ability to seek treatment for and recover from mental illness. As a result, new studies are being published on the efficacy of de-stigmatization campaigns. 

One such study, led by Bernice Pescosolido, professor of sociology at Indiana University, describes an effective strategy to reduce stigma through a long-term, community-based, student empowerment approach with institutional support. 

“We believe this is the right time for these efforts both because this generation is much more open than past generations… and because college is when people are really forming critical attitudes that will follow them the rest of their lives,” Pescosolido says. 
“This is the moment when we can really make a difference.”

2) Insufficient investment from universities

Universities have been prioritizing student wellness more in recent years, but so much more needs to be done. To highlight this point, we’ll dive into university counseling programs – the primary student wellness resource offered by schools.

Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS):

When college students feel they need help with mental health, many go to the university’s counseling center. CAPS programs allow students to meet with a licensed professional in social work or psychology.

CAPS programs do amazing work, but it’s important to acknowledge their current limitations: 

       a. CAPS programs are struggling to meet rising demand.

This means that students are often waitlisted, sometimes for weeks or months.

During the 2017-2018 academic year, more than 160 colleges had waiting lists for counseling services. On average, students at these universities waited over three weeks for an initial appointment. 

The Center for Collegiate Mental Health found that over-utilized counseling centers are associated with significantly less improvement in depression, anxiety, and general distress by students receiving treatment.

A VICE survey found that some students were waitlisted up to ten weeks for an initial appointment. Reducing wait times is critical, since the consequences of living with an untreated mental illness are severe.

Ultimately, if a student decides they are ready to seek help, the university has a responsibility to ensure that he or she can receive immediate attention. Until these programs are properly funded, students will continue to be waitlisted, receive less-than-optimal care, and risk the consequences of living with an untreated mental illness.

      b. Most students don’t seek help. 

CAPS centers are absolutely essential, but it’s important to recognize that 2 in 3 students with anxiety or depression don’t seek help! 

Each student responds differently to a mental illness. Some seek professional help, some turn to friends or family, and many don’t want to talk about it with anyone. For us to defeat the student mental health crisis, universities should provide and promote a wide-array of mental health resources, so that no student feels they need to fight the battle alone. 

Organizations Supporting Student Mental Health

Student-to-Student Model: 

A landmark 2018 study showed that empowered students are highly effective in shifting the campus climate to be more supportive of mental health.

  1. Active Minds:

Active Minds is on more than 800 campuses, directly reaching 600,000 students each year through campus awareness campaigns, events, advocacy, outreach, and more. 

A survey of more than 1,100 students at 12 colleges found that as students become more involved with Active Minds, they are more likely to reach out to a classmate or friend who is struggling with depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts. 

Among the general student body, even basic familiarity of Active Minds increases knowledge and positive attitudes about mental health, creating a more supportive campus climate, and increasing the likelihood that students in distress will seek mental health services.

  1. BetterMynd

BetterMynd is a teletherapy platform that focuses exclusively on college students. Through their network of providers and the power of teletherapy, BetterMynd is empowering college students to get the mental health care they need.

Especially during Covid-19, as university counseling centers are shut down, resources like BetterMynd are absolutely essential. 

Fun fact: During BetterMynd’s first pilot at Colgate University, over 8% of the student body registered on the platform!

Self-Care Apps:

Self-care apps are powerful resources in that they allow students to manage and improve mental wellbeing anywhere, anytime, and generally for free. They can be particularly impactful for students who are uncomfortable talking to a therapist, friends, or family, or for those who simply want to start a rewarding self-care practice. Self-care apps are particularly important during COVID.

  1. Shine

Shine is a meditation and community app with a mission to make caring for your mental and emotional health easier, more representative, and more inclusive. The founders started Shine because they didn’t see minorities and their experiences represented in mainstream wellness.

Shine has guided meditations, journaling exercises, and a community feature where you can discuss the question of the day with other like-minded members and get support from each other. 

Shine's mobile app

  1. Wellnest 

We had to give ourselves a shoutout :) The benefits of journaling are immense – it reduces stress and symptoms of anxiety and depression, makes you more self-aware, boosts productivity, resilience, confidence, and much more.

But journaling regularly is pretty hard. That’s why we built Wellnest – The Wellnest app leverages gamification to help you build an enjoyable and effective journaling routine, and offers engaging guided question packs that prompt you to reflect, develop, and explore your mind.

Best of all, Wellnest enables a seamless voice journaling experience, so your thoughts can flow freely in a fraction of the time. 

Wellnest uses game-design to help students form a journaling habit

This is not an exhaustive list by any means! There are so many great resources out there and we do hope that you check them out. 

Student Mental Health – What Now?

Universities need to invest more into student wellness resources. 

  1. CAPS programs are underfunded and over-utilized. CAPS programs need more resources to meet demand.
  1. The majority of students don't seek help – Universities need to partner with organizations to provide students with diverse and accessible resources. 
  1. Investing in large-scale de-stigmatization campaigns can accelerate the improvement of student mental health, as well as influence an entire generation to become more open and accepting of mental illness.

There is no such thing as too many mental health resources! 

It might be difficult to convince universities to increase funding toward student wellness, considering that the average state spent $1,502 (16%) less per student in 2018 than in 2008.

That's why it's important we support the organizations combating mental health stigma, creating community support groups, and building digital wellness tools that can reach an entire student body. 

By volunteering, donating, or sharing educational content to boost awareness and start conversations around this topic, each of us can help improve student mental health. And of course, checking in on friends and family from time to time won't hurt either :) 

It will take a lot of work, but there’s good reason to be optimistic about the future of mental health in our schools and country. 

Thanks For Reading!

Don't forget to share this article, and feel free to send the author an email for feedback, suggestions, or just to say hello!

More Reading

The Many Benefits of Journaling

July 30, 2020

The simple act of journaling can enhance your quality of life on a much deeper level than you might think.