Health

America’s universities are failing students facing mental health crises

This Thanksgiving, college students across the nation are taking a temporary break from classes to celebrate at home with family and friends. Yet for students struggling with thoughts of suicide and other serious mental health issues, some may be told not to return to campus.  

Colleges across America have largely dropped their COVID-19 restrictions, yet the pressures facing students today remain extraordinarily high. The American Psychological Association has labeled it a “crisis,” and estimates that over 60 percent of college students are currently dealing with one or more mental health problems.  

Congress has done little to provide funding to understand the stresses and challenges students are confronting. And many universities aren’t providing students the support they need to be healthy and resilient. 

In 2019, students attending high-achieving schools across the country were added to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s (NASEM) list of “at-risk” groups. The reason: Pressure to compete at top academic levels resulted in higher statistics of behavioral and mental health issues. Others on NASEM’s at-risk list included children living in poverty, foster care and those with incarcerated parents.  

That was before the pandemic. Since then students have endured severe challenges, including social isolation and remote learning, which have disrupted their social and academic development. Campus life for college students may appear, on the surface, to be back-to-normal but for many, the lingering effects of COVID-19 are still very raw, and very real.  

Statistics published by the University of Michigan rank suicide as the second-leading cause of death for college students nationwide. Approximately 1,100 suicides occur on college campuses every year. Nearly 40 percent of the university’s own students have either “thought about or considered” it. Such figures put increased pressure — and higher expectations — on universities to address the mental health care needs of their students.  

Schools know this is a problem. Six consecutive surveys by the American Council on Education dating back to the start of the pandemic found student mental health was a “pressing issue.” Last year, over 70 percent of university presidents cited it as their most important concern.  

Yet some of the nation’s most elite universities appear to be failing students who need mental health services. A recent expose by The Washington Post found suicidal students at Yale University “are pressured to withdraw.” And those seeking readmittance must reapply and waive their right to privacy by demonstrating that, at their own cost, they’ve received proper mental health care during their time away as a condition of being allowed back to campus.  

The problem isn’t specific to Yale. Prior to the pandemic, the Ruderman Family Foundation found issues at a number of Ivy League universities regarding forced leaves-of-absence policies for students suffering from mental illness. Everyone received a grade of D+ or lower.  

These policies betray the students who seek care. Such policies prioritize legal protection over student well-being. Instead of expanding services and prioritizing mental health, some schools are compounding the problem by forcing students who come forward to leave their walls.  

This year Congress increased youth mental health support but kept grant funding for higher education at a paltry $6.5 million. To bolster the strength of America’s young adult population we need to destigmatize, and not penalize, care-seeking behavior. We also need a greater commitment from our elected leaders to fund accessible and substantive programs to address mental health awareness and prevention. 

And such support must extend beyond university campuses. Young people everywhere endured COVID-19 and many are in need of help — including those in college and those for whom college is not an option.  

At a time when student need for college mental health services is at an all-time high, schools are lagging behind. University presidents overwhelmingly agree mental health is the number one issue facing their campuses. They — and Congress — need to step up and do more to be part of the solution. 

Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy.

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