By nearly every metric, student mental health is worsening. During the 2020–2021 school year, more than 60% of college students met the criteria for at least one mental health problem, according to the Healthy Minds Study, which collects data from 373 campuses nationwide (Lipson, S. K., et al., Journal of Affective Disorders, Vol. 306, 2022). In another national survey, almost three quarters of students reported moderate or severe psychological distress (National College Health Assessment, American College Health Association, 2021).
Even before the pandemic, schools were facing a surge in demand for care that far outpaced capacity, and it has become increasingly clear that the traditional counseling center model is ill-equipped to solve the problem.
“Counseling centers have seen extraordinary increases in demand over the past decade,” said Michael Gerard Mason, PhD, associate dean of African American Affairs at the University of Virginia (UVA) and a longtime college counselor. “[At UVA], our counseling staff has almost tripled in size, but even if we continue hiring, I don’t think we could ever staff our way out of this challenge.”
Some of the reasons for that increase are positive. Compared with past generations, more students on campus today have accessed mental health treatment before college, suggesting that higher education is now an option for a larger segment of society, said Micky Sharma, PsyD, who directs student life’s counseling and consultation service at The Ohio State University (OSU). Stigma around mental health issues also continues to drop, leading more people to seek help instead of suffering in silence.
But college students today are also juggling a dizzying array of challenges, from coursework, relationships, and adjustment to campus life to economic strain, social injustice, mass violence, and various forms of loss related to Covid-19.
As a result, school leaders are starting to think outside the box about how to help. Institutions across the country are embracing approaches such as group therapy, peer counseling, and telehealth. They’re also better equipping faculty and staff to spot—and support—students in distress, and rethinking how to respond when a crisis occurs. And many schools are finding ways to incorporate a broader culture of wellness into their policies, systems, and day-to-day campus life.
“This increase in demand has challenged institutions to think holistically and take a multifaceted approach to supporting students,” said Kevin Shollenberger, the vice provost for student health and well-being at Johns Hopkins University. “It really has to be everyone’s responsibility at the university to create a culture of well-being.”