Commentary: Why Higher Ed Institutions Need to Do More to Address Mental Health Issues

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By Anais Lopez,  a fellow with the UnidosUS youth leadership program Líderes Avanzando Through College. 

One in three. Thirty-three percent. That’s the proportion of today’s college students who need some kind of mental-health support, according to Mind Share Partners. At UCLA, where most students live in triple bed dorms, that’s one student per room. College students are viewed by many Americans as the nation’s “privileged” young people. So why are their rates of mental health issues so high?

People of every race and gender, and every socioeconomic and educational level, face mental-health risks. But college can be a particularly stressful time. Students experience anxiety over classwork, family pressures, and the rising costs of tuition, housing, and food. Many undergraduates are sleep-deprived, and barraged with self-loathing humor online that discourages positive thinking. The 2018 National College Health Assessment found that 60 percent of students reported experiencing crushing anxiety, and 40 percent had symptoms of depression. Overall, 87.4 percent of the students surveyed felt “overwhelmed by all (they) had to do in the last 12 months.”

And some groups come under unique pressures. Immigrant students may worry about their immigration status. Discriminatory attitudes from authority figures and peers, even their own roommates, can leave them feeling fearful, inadequate, and undeserving. First-generation college students sometimes think they’re failing their parents if their grades aren’t perfect. And many students in the LGBTQA+ community “come out” during college, exposing them to fears of reprisal or abandonment by friends and family.

Given these scenarios, it’s little wonder many college students need help. But many don’t recognize they have a mental health issue even if they are conscious that they are struggling with stress factors. Some avoid seeking treatment because they see that as a sign of weakness. Others just don’t feel they have anywhere to go for help.

If so many college students are struggling, why aren’t colleges tackling the problem?

Well, the truth is that they are. And they are not.

Let’s take UCLA as an example. According to the admissions office, UCLA has nearly 46,000 students, some as young as 17 and some over age 30. They have a broad range of mental health issues, and limited places where they can seek help. The mental health center – CAPS – at UCLA is a great facility that I have utilized. But with so many students and so many issues, it can be hard to get an appointment. My sessions were often a month or more apart. Now, it’s pretty obvious that the university can’t provide a counselor for every student, but mental health issues don’t take a “break” to show up when it is convenient for your therapy sessions. Also, even though the center is located on campus, accessibility is a problem because it’s more than most students can afford.

And failing to provide enough mental health services is only one way colleges fall short. Many schools tell students to prioritize mental health and put themselves first, then create systems where doing so seems virtually impossible. At UCLA, one of the few institutions with the quarter system, students often begin midterms during Week 3, when they have only attended six lectures in a typical class, and met the Teacher Assistant (TA) at most 3 times. It’s easy to see why many students feel they have to choose between focusing on their studies and seeking therapy, even though they really need to do both.

This situation is not unique to UCLA. All across the country and the world, students are stuck wanting to care for themselves, but feeling they can’t because cultural, societal, and educational pressures or the absence of mental health services put help out of reach.

Colleges can help break this cycle by implementing services like culturally relevant therapy, and by working with professors to talk to students about their mental health issues. Schools also can do more to create spaces where students can get help without fear of shame, and where they can see that the university has made it a high priority to get them access to resources, including therapists.

Now, I am no psychologist, and my own experiences with mental health are unique, as are everyone’s. But I know that something must be done. Whether it is a big public university like UCLA or a small private college in middle America, every school must do more to address mental health issues.

As a Lideres Avanzando fellow for UnidosUs, I hope to spread awareness of the disparities that are present among college campuses and help implement changes that will benefit students across America.The dialogue around mental health and our approaches when handling it must become more inclusionary and widespread. In the meantime, for those that are currently experiencing struggles, resources such as:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK))
  • National Hopeline Network (1-800-784-2433 (1-800-SUICIDE))
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness1-800-950-6264 (1-800-950-NAMI) or