There has been a significant increase in anxiety and depression among college students. Recent data from the CDC suggests a disproportionate risk for mental health problems in college-age people; one study reported that nine out of 10 college students believe that colleges have a mental health crisis.
Despite increased awareness about the importance of supporting mental health on college campuses, our conversations too often emphasize averting crises. Instead, we need proactive discussions focused on helping students develop the skills and habits to thrive in a fast-paced and complex world.
We should start by reframing the topic from a “problem with our students” to a “problem with the historical moment in which our students live.” There is a lot to be anxious about today.
We need to assure students that mental health challenges are not a personal failing but a reasonable response to a challenging historical moment when they are reading and hearing a lot about climate change, war in Europe, a global pandemic, political polarization, rampant inflation and declining social and political institutions.
And we should recognize that the social isolation and anxiety many of our students are feeling is less about them as individuals and more about how Covid responses negatively impacted their lives during the past few years.
Young people’s prolonged social isolation in the midst of learning to develop healthy social skills and negotiate responsibilities had profound negative impacts on both their physical and mental health.
After acknowledging these stressors, the conversation needs to focus on helping students learn to positively impact their own health. While not all aspects of their mental health are under their control, students have more ownership than they realize.
We should encourage candid conversations about the connection between physical and mental health. If students don’t sleep enough (and few do), eat nutritionally and stay active, they won’t be physically or mentally healthy. For example, one study found that with every additional night of insufficient sleep, the risk of experiencing mental health symptoms increased by more than 20 percent.
We also need to have candid conversations about the connection between social media and increased levels of bullying, harassment and FOMO (fear of missing out) and how this contributes to poor mental health.
Too many students are using social media to find human connection instead of seeking out the face-to-face interactions that build strong relationships and are critical to well-being and development.
Most importantly, we need to introduce concepts like emotional agility and mindfulness into our campus conversations. Harvard professor Susan David talks about how the way we engage our emotions shapes our mental health. We can help students develop the tools to recognize anxiety and depression as feelings that are real but not fixed.
I love this quote from her: “When we show up fully, with awareness and acceptance, even the worst demons usually back down.”
We need to help students understand that suffering is deeply human, and that we can learn to accept it, move through it and emerge more substantial and resilient.
Research done by the Mind & Life Institute and other organizations should guide campuswide conversations about how to transform everything from teaching to residential halls to crisis management in ways that foster students’ development of the skills and habits of well-being.
We also need to set reasonable and realistic expectations for students about the college experience. Tim Bono at Washington University has been rightly critical of our college admissions process that paints an unrealistic picture for incoming students. Colleges need to describe the whole college experience — including its challenges and demands.
While there are many fun moments, there are also times of loneliness, struggle and failure.
By design, college delivers profound personal growth, and this happens through overcoming obstacles and developing tools to succeed. We should not be afraid to challenge students out of fear that it will have a detrimental impact on their mental health. The greatest gift we can give young people is a “push,” because it sends the message that we believe in them and that they can rise to the occasion.
Brandon Slade of Untapped Learning recently said to me, “Too often, colleges are all support and no accountability or all accountability and no support. The best colleges understand that students need two parts support to one part accountability.”
The experience of recovering from setbacks and hardships is something we need throughout our lives. College campuses are good places for students to learn and practice getting up over and over again to achieve more than they think is possible.
Finally, we need a conversation about medical care on our campuses. We need to clarify what our campuses can and cannot provide, and we need to allow students with existing medical providers to continue to receive care virtually.
The time is right for colleges to explore new partnerships to expand the medical care we offer. We also need to be honest with students about when it might be wise to take a semester off. Sometimes students need to give themselves permission to step away from college, focus on their health and then return when they are healthy and ready to continue.
When I look across our campuses, I see a generation of students who are intent on addressing the issues of their time. Colleges can prepare them to meet those challenges, but we need a better conversation about who we are, what we do and how we help students develop the capacity to thrive in their personal and professional lives.