College is a time of limitless opportunity and freedom. It also can be a time of great stress, with students wondering whether they can live up to expectations. They may be overwhelmed by choices, new responsibilities and the need to set their own rules. And some — many, in fact — will struggle with mental health.
When new University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel began touring campuses this summer, she was struck by just how many. “Every campus we visited, one of the first questions we received was around student mental health and how this has gone from something we always took into consideration to something that one could legitimately refer to as a crisis,” she told an editorial writer recently.
The signs have been there. The U’s 2018 College Student Health Survey identified mental health as the “number one public health issue on campus — significantly above other issues.” The survey found that more than 42% of respondents have had a mental health diagnosis. That was a 29% increase from a similar survey conducted in 2015. Nearly half of female students reported a current or previous mental health condition, up nearly 40% from 2015. Therapy visits have increased by 25%, and the U’s Boynton Health has doubled its mental health staff to cope.
The rise is undeniable, although the causes remain unclear. Boynton data shows that 20 years ago, 1 in 5 students had been diagnosed with a mental health condition. Today those numbers are 2 in 5, with anxiety and depression among the most common diagnoses. Experts caution that the rise should not be seen as a lack of resilience among this generation of students, but rather a greater willingness to acknowledge problems and seek help. That’s important, because what starts as mild anxiety or depression, left unaddressed, can grow to crippling dimensions, interfering with daily life and leading some to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.
A nationwide study in 2017, conducted by the Boston University School of Public Health, looked at a decade of data and found that mental health diagnoses among college students increased from 22% to 36%. Treatment rose from 19% to 34%, whether for therapy or medication. The rate of those considering suicide nearly doubled, from 6% to 11%.
Fortunately, the study also found that stigma had decreased. That makes it easier for students to seek help and for universities to reach out.
“It is epidemic, and we need to talk about it and act on it,” Gabel said. “I intend to launch an initiative around being a real ally in the maximization of our students’ opportunities to be well and in particular around their mental health so that we’re making sure they can be their best selves while they are here.”
That kind of leadership is both welcome and critical. The pressure on students to do well these days is exacerbated by the staggering cost many take on to attend school. Gabel said she is developing a more extensive proposal but in the meantime is working to cast a bigger spotlight on this issue. As part of her inaugural activities next week, she’ll make remarks at a panel discussion featuring experts and students talking about student mental health. The school also has set up a special donor fund focused on mental health initiatives across the U system that will kick off later this month.
There should be no stigma attached to seeking help with mental health issues, anymore than for physical ones. We know that anxiety and depression can respond to treatment, and as with all conditions, the earlier the better. What some universities have dubbed the “check up from the neck up” should be as routine as any other medical care. We welcome President Gabel’s attention to this important topic and look forward to the results.