The College Student Mental Health Crisis
It has been well documented that there is a positive relationship between students’ emotional health and their persistence to college completion.1 According to the annual Healthy Minds Study, students with mental health challenges are twice as likely to leave without graduating. Poor mental health hinders students’ academic success and untreated mental health issues may lead to lower GPAs, discontinuous enrollment, and too often, lapses in enrollment.2 70% of college presidents recently identified student mental health as a pressing concern.3
Today on college campuses, loneliness and isolation among students is the norm and depression in college students is on the rise. Exacerbated by social media, many students have this ill conceived idea that everyone else is having more fun and living a better life than they are. Unfortunately, an increasing number of college students are now experiencing emotional health issues4—to the point that it has become a public health concern.5 In fact, more than one third of college students worldwide experience a mental health crisis during their first year.6 Sadly, many students who experience attrition-triggering emotional challenges do not utilize campus counseling centers, often because of lingering social stigmas or self-imposed stigmas associated with seeking help.5 Furthermore, students from underrepresented ethnic and racial groups, many of whom are first-generation and/or limited (FGLI) college students, are even less likely to seek support for mental health issues.7
The foregoing findings highlight the need to augment traditional “passive programming,” which relies on students making individual, self-initiated contact with personal counselors with a more intrusive, campus-initiated educational approach. This proactive method brings mental health education directly to students, particularly those who may lack the assertiveness or cultural proclivity to seek it out on their own. The good news is that supporting college student mental health improves academic performance, persistence, and graduation rates. Investing in student mental health is a wise academic and economic decision for an institution.2
The Potential of Positive Psychology, Mindfulness, and Self-Compassion to Address the College Student Mental Health Crisis
More than a decade of research has shown that teaching resilience and Positive Psychology principles to youth can reduce and prevent symptoms of depression and anxiety, lower stress, promote well-being, and improve grades—by enhancing students’ abilities to focus attention and dismiss distracting thoughts.8
There is also growing evidence to support the effectiveness of Mindfulness-based interventions for managing stress, maintaining mental health, and promoting subjective well-being,9 particularly among emerging adults.10 Mindfulness practices have been found to facilitate the adjustment of first-year college students,11 even after controlling for factors such as self-efficacy and social support.12 In addition, Mindfulness has been found to be an effective way to combat binge drinking and excessive alcohol consumption.11 For example, mindful students engage in less problematic drinking and are more aware of their drinking behavior and its consequences.13 These findings strongly suggest that Mindfulness practices can be powerful tools for facilitating students’ transition to college, and their persistence through degree completion.
Furthermore, research suggests that Self-Compassion can be an effective practice to help students respond in healthy ways to the challenges of the college years. Studies have shown that those with higher Self-Compassion have significantly lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress.14 It has also been found that students with higher Self-Compassion are more motivated to achieve and are more resilient. 15
In conclusion, Positive Psychology, Mindfulness, and Self-Compassion all cultivate well-being and flourishing through a strengths and skills-based approach. This approach is useful in ameliorating psychological stress, anxiety, and symptoms of depression.
Supporting Research: The Current College Student Mental Health Crisis
- Compared to prior generations, college students today are 50 percent more likely to report feeling overwhelmed and stressed.16
- More than half of college students experience emotional stress (ACHA-NCHA, 2017) and the emotional distress rates of college students have trended upward over the course of the past four years. 17
- A 2017 survey by the American College Health Association revealed that about 61 percent of college students had experienced "overwhelming anxiety" within the previous year, up from 51 percent in 2011.18
- According to the National College Health Assessment, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of students suffering from depression has increased dramatically nationwide— from 32.6 percent in 2013 to 40.2 percent in 2017.19
- Boston University’s School of Public Health reports that 30 percent of students struggling with depression drop out, one-fifth of whom might have stayed in school with the proper treatment and intervention.20
- Anxiety and depression rates have been rising, with three out of every four college students reporting at least one stressful life event within the past year. Twenty percent said they experienced greater than five stressful life events within that same time frame.21
- According to the American Psychological Association, more than a third of students worldwide experience a mental health crisis during their first-year of college.22
- The number of students seeking mental health services treatment far exceeds the resources of most counseling centers.20
- According to the American Psychological Association, one-quarter of Gen Zers report that they don't do enough to manage their stress, and nearly three-quarters (73%) indicate they could have benefited from more emotional support in the last 12 months.20
- According to a recent national report from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, students typically have to wait almost seven business days for their first appointment with a college counselor; on some campuses, the wait can be more than two months.20
College Student Mental Health in the News
- Choy, S. (2002). Findings from the condition of education 2002: Nontraditional undergraduates.US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. NCES 2002-012. Retrieved from https://ncs.ed.gov/pubs2002-2002012.pdf
- Ketchen Lipson, S., et al., (2019). Investing in Student Mental Health. Washington DC: American Council on Education.
- American Council on Education. (2020, December 11). New Pulse Point Survey of College Presidents Shows Increase in Mental Health Concerns, Ongoing Impact of COVID-19. Retrieved February 09, 2021, from https://www.acenet.edu/Pages/default.aspx
- Raimondi, T. P. (2019). Compassion fatigue in higher education: Lessons from other helping fields. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 51(3), 53-58.
- Eisenberg, D., Hunt, J., & Speer, N. (2012). Help seeking for mental health on college campuses: Review of evidence and next steps for research and practice. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 20(4), 222-132.
- Auerbach, R. P., et al., (2018). WHO World Mental Health Surveys International College Student Project: Prevalence and Distribution of Mental Disorders. Journal of Abnormal Psych
- Hlavacek, J. (2018, July 31). KU sees increased demand for student mental health services. Lawrence Journal-World. Retrieved from http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2018/jul/31/ku-sees-increased-demand-for-student-mental-health-services/
- Nelson, D. W., & Knight, A. E. (2010, March 23).The power of positive recollections: Reducing test anxiety and increasing college student efficacy and performance. Journal of Applied Psychology. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2010.00595.x
- Hanley, A., Warner, A., & Garland, E. L. (2015). Associations between mindfulness, psychological well-being and subjective well-being with respect to contemplative practice. Journal of Happiness Studies, 16(6), 1243-1436. doi:1007/s10902-014-9569-5
- Rogers, H., & Maytan, M. (2012). Mindfulness for the next generation: Helping emerging adults manage stress and lead healthier lives. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Ramler, T. R., Tennison, L. R., Lynch, J., & Murphy, P. (2016). Mindfulness and the college transition: The efficacy of an adapted mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention in fostering adjustment among first-year university students. Mindfulness, 7, 179-188. doi:10.1007/s12671-015-0398-3
- Klainin-Yobas, P., Ramirez, D., Fernandez, Z., Sarmiento, J., Thanoi, W., Ignacio, J., & Lau, Y. (2016). Earning the predicting effect of mindfulness on psychological well-being among undergraduate students: A structural equation modeling approach. Personality and Individual Differences, 91, 63-68.
- Fortin, A. (2018, February 13). How mindfulness can benefit college students. Daily Collegian (Penn State University). Retrieved from https://www.collegian.psu.edu/lifestyles/health/article_58131944-104c-11e8-9e6d-9fd2ac28debc.html
- Marsh, I.C., Chan, S.W.Y. & MacBeth, A. Mindfulness (2018) 9: 1011. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-017-0850-7
- Bluth, Karen & Mullarkey, Michael & Lathren, Christine. (2018). Self-Compassion: A Potential Path to Adolescent Resilience and Positive Exploration. Journal of Child and Family Studies. 27. 10.1007/s10826-018-1125-1.
- Twenge, J. (2014). Time period and birth cohort differences in depressive symptoms in the U.S., 1982-2013. Social Indicators Research, 121(2), 437-454.
- Hibbs, B. J., & Rostain, A. (2019). The stressed years of their lives: Helping your kid survive and thrive during their college years. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
- Sadick, B. (2018, September 21). How students can find mental health services on campus. U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/2018-09-21/how-college-students-can-find-mental-health-services-on-campus
- Malafronte, K. (2018, September 12). Study: 1 in 5 college students contemplate suicide. Campus Safety. Retrieved from https://www.campussafetymagazine.com/research/study-college-students-suicide/
- Wolverton, B. (2019, February 21). As students struggle with stress and depression: Colleges act as counselors. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/21/education/learning/mental-health-counseling-on-campus.html
- Brown, I.M. (2018, September 6). 3 of 4 college students say they’re stressed, many report suicidal thoughts: Study. ABC News. Retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/college-students-stressed-report-suicidal-thoughts-study/story?id=57646236
- Foiles, J. (2019, January 28). Are college students failing students with mental illnesses? Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-thing-feathers/201901/are-colleges-failing-students-mental-illness