US campuses report surge in student mental health woes

Four out of five presidents in survey describe escalation in recent years

August 12, 2019
Mental health

Student mental health problems are a growing concern on US college campuses, especially at public institutions, with stressed-out lives demanding more funding and staff time, a nationwide presidential survey found.

In the survey of 410 college and university presidents by the American Council on Education, the nation’s chief higher education lobby group, 80 per cent of the campus leaders called student mental health a greater priority than it was three years ago.

The rise of student mental health problems at college has been a widely recognised challenge in the US. The ACE survey, designed to quantify the situation from the perspective of campus presidents, found mental health issues most pronounced at public four-year institutions, where 87 per cent of the presidents described it as a bigger priority than did the other presidents.

The US has about 14 million undergraduates at public institutions and about 3 million in private non-profit settings. Of the 410 presidents in the ACE survey, 44 per cent represented private non-profit four-year institutions, 32 per cent came from public four-year campuses, and 21 per cent led two-year publics.

More than 70 per cent of the presidents in the ACE survey said they had reallocated or found additional funding to help with student mental health, and 90 per cent said it was costing more staff time than it did three years earlier.

“Mental health has become a major issue for retention and the general well-being of our students,” one participating president told the ACE survey. “This is in my top three areas of improvement for my college.”

The presidents identified anxiety and depression as top student mental health concerns, each cited by about three-quarters of the leaders.

But causes varied, with the public presidents reporting higher levels of housing insecurity, food insecurity and addiction issues.

Nearly a third of public and private non-profit four-year presidents and a fifth of public two-year presidents said they hear at least weekly of students struggling with mental health. The public presidents were more likely to rely on their police for help, while the private leaders tended to consult with their academic staff.

Most presidents told the ACE survey they needed more help to handle student mental health issues, and the majority said they would spend additional resources on staff, mostly in their counselling centres. A fifth cited the need for better programmes, and one in 10 suggested professional development for faculty and staff.

In their comments accompanying the survey, the presidents emphasised the complexity of the problem, and the need for early alert systems, better assessment tools, and improved campus-wide integration of all staff involved in handling students with mental health troubles. “We can’t just solve this by hiring more counsellors,” one president wrote in the survey.

Some presidents described student-led efforts, including the creation by two student athletes on one campus of a programme to encourage their fellow students suffering from depression to seek help.

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