You are on page 1of 28


The Mental Health Crisis in Higher Education

Melissa K. Recht

Wright State University


The Mental Health Crisis In Higher Education

Anxiety. Depression. Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Eating disorders. Addiction.

College students today are experiencing skyrocketing rates of mental health diagnoses that directly

affect academic success, retention rates, and emotional and physical well-being (Watkins, Hunt and

Eisenberg, 2011). This epidemic of mental health disorders on campus has created a complex

situation for student affairs professionals, who often must deal with students in crisis. Student

affairs professionals, while often well-versed in student development and prepared to act with

empathy in many situations, are often unprepared to deal with the scope and seriousness of mental

health issues they may encounter. Without proper training to deal with anxious, suicidal, depressed,

and addicted students, student affairs professionals may be taxed beyond their limits (Reynolds,

2013). The increasing demand for resources for mental health issues also adds to the burden that

some student affairs professionals may face, causing burnout and stress. Counseling centers and

student activities offices are now acting proactively as well as reactively to the needs of students,

and it can be both costly and time-consuming to create programming, training opportunities,

support groups, and other resources (Watkins et al, 2011)

Student affairs professionals are confronting this problem by seeking training and on the

job professional development (Watkins et al, 2011; Reynolds, 2013). Journals in the field are

addressing the change in mental health rates and researchers are sorting through the reasons why

young adults are experiencing this shift and how they can be supported in the university

environment. It is clear from the literature that the profession is aware of and reacting to the

increase in mental health disorders with hopes of creating solutions that benefit students but do not

overwhelm student affairs professionals (Watkins et al, 2011; Reynolds, 2013).

Addressing the Elephant in the Room

The stigma associated with mental health is dissolving as the rates of diagnosed students go

up. This means more students are coming forward on university campuses disclosing a mental

health issue and asking for help. Many of these students are newly diagnosed or seek a diagnosis in

college. Watkins et al (2011) point out that many lifetime mental health issues will appear before or

during college years. And the numbers are staggering. 45% of college students struggle to function

(Reynolds, 2013). Half of all college students have had at least one episode of suicidal thinking

(Watkins et al, 2011). And the severity of these problems is increasing as well--studies show that

the number of extreme emotional problems is on the rise (Watkins et al, 2011).

First year students experience a huge transition, and often experience increased stress as a

result. Moving from the family environment into a dorm, establishing new social groups, and

facing academic challenges can be difficult for many students and even more so for students with

mental health issues. Freidlander, Reid, Shupak and Cribbie (2007) suggest that the students are

surprised by the impact on their mental health, “University life has been reported to be more harsh

and stressful than students anticipate (p. 260).” The stress for these first year students can cause

health problems that interfere with academic performance, social activities, and more.

It is not just first year students experiencing stress, of course. The research shows that the

students in college now and in recent years are confronting college very differently than their

predecessors did. A number of factors translate to increased stress and mental health challenges,

including what researchers say are high levels of perfectionism and anxiety, dependence on

technology, “helicopter” parents, and a lack of coping skills (Bland, Melton, Welle and Bigham et

al, 2012; Watkins et al, 2011).

The current generation of college students handles mental health differently than previous

ones. Today’s students have often received mental health care services before coming to college, in

a way that previous generations have not. This reduces stigma, and they are more likely to seek

services on their college campus (Watkins et al, 2011). Watkins also points out that some of the

students with more severe mental health issues would not have attended college in the past, but

with medication and therapy becoming more common, many of those students are now seeking a

college education (2011).

Although students are struggling, universities are providing important resources and

supports to keep them in school (and keep them healthy and functioning). Stress tolerance and

coping skills trainings, increased counseling center hours and appointments, and other

interventions are now a part of the college experience. As Watkins (2011) writes, a university is a

“single integrated setting” encompassing the main activities of many students’ lives: eating,

sleeping, socializing, learning, and, now, healing (p. 320).

Role of Student Affairs Professionals

Student affairs professionals must now confront the rising numbers of students who come

to campus with mental health problems that require care and attention. Staff working in housing,

student activities, identity centers, and other student-facing offices and departments are the

frontline and are often the first to notice or be made aware of mental health issues. They are often

the first ones to address the issue, even before the student makes it to a counseling center or

hospital. According to Reynolds​ ​(2013), this creates an increased demand on the time, energy, and

resources of those frontline staff. Staff facing this challenging situation must consider how to

handle students experiencing an emergency, figure out how to allocate resources to address mental

health on campus, consider liability and risk, and think about their own mental health as they deal

with students in crisis (Watkins et al 2011).

Regardless of the challenges of dealing with such a momentous task, it is clear student

affairs professionals will need to be prepared to be a part of the solution. The American College

Personnel Association (ACPA) sums it up, “It is our jobs as representatives of college student

educators, administrators and student affairs professionals to help students thrive. ACPA will

continue to learn how to best serve communities impacted by mental health challenges, and will

continue to promote awareness for these conditions, specifically for students of marginalized

identities and backgrounds, who are often more prone to mental health conditions as a result of

environmental stressors (“Mental Health Position,” 2019).”

What Can be Done?

Reynolds (2013) points out that many student affairs professionals are already concerned

about the mental health of the students they work with, and have personal concerns about how to

help or work with these students. Indeed, it was a top concern cited in a Delphi survey of APCA

members (Reynolds, 2013). Student affairs professionals, especially those new to the field or who

have not received training on how to handle situations with students in a mental health crisis,

should receive appropriate professional development and helper training (Reynolds, 2013). While