In one of my recent courses, a first-year student made comments about how many spaces on campus were dehumanizing, with people walking around “like robots.”
She spoke about how her first quarter in college brought significant mental health challenges related to sleep deprivation, isolation and course withdrawals. She seriously considered dropping out.
This same student also shared that our classroom was the first place she felt she could call her own on campus — a space where she could focus on learning rather than grades, explore issues relevant to her world and have authentic human conversations about life. She credited the course with rekindling her passion for learning, fostering her confidence and helping her develop meaningful connections.
Her story offers a salient example of how campuses can not only create toxic breeding grounds for mental health struggles but also foster spaces where students thrive.
Research and a plethora of anecdotal evidence tell us that campuses do far too much of the former and not enough of the latter. If this is so, how can colleges turn the tide to become more a part of the solution than we are a part of the problem?
College students continuously deal with a wide range of stressors, from racial discrimination to immense financial insecurity. It can take a toll on their well-being, yet campuses often fail to help students navigate these challenges.
In fact, many colleges actively exacerbate them in their pursuit of fame, wealth and prestige. These unhealthy obsessions often compromise valuable benefits such as deep connections, community, spirituality and health.
It is not surprising that students are experiencing a wide range of mental health challenges, such as paralyzing stress, anxiety and depression. In 2021-22, the national Healthy Minds Survey found that college students’ anxiety and depression were at historic levels, with 37 percent reporting some anxiety and 44 percent experiencing some depression in the two weeks prior to the survey. Moreover, approximately 83 percent reported that emotional or mental difficulties had impaired their academic performance at some time during the month prior to taking the survey.
Although some observers might try to dismiss these statistics as just a result of the pandemic, national data suggest that mental health issues were on the rise before the virus arrived. It is vital that institutions pay more attention and take more responsibility for their part in causing these trends.
Campuses can not only create toxic breeding grounds for mental health struggles but also foster spaces where students thrive.
Lindsay Pérez Huber, a professor at California State University, Long Beach, and I co-authored a report that highlights how campuses fuel mental health challenges and how they can help address them. (Disclaimer: the report was commissioned by the California Futures Foundation, among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)
We note that cultivating caring, affirming and connected communities on college campuses is critical when it comes to mental health.
Networks of professors, staff and fellow students who care can become lifelines when college stressors become all consuming. And if colleges affirm student cultures, values and identities, they can boost students’ self-esteem and sense of empowerment, help them feel less isolated and promote a greater sense of belonging. Prioritizing caring connected and affirming communities helps more students thrive.
For example, research shows a boost in students’ well-being after they simply reflect on their intrinsic values within the context of their learning environments.
A curriculum that allows students to simultaneously deepen their connections to their community’s cultural values and their learning environment can help them feel like they belong to both. Research also shows that culturally relevant learning experiences improve academic success.
Ethnic Studies programs provide a strong model for creating such learning environments. Unfortunately, they typically are undervalued and under political attack. In such contexts, they should not be asked to bear the brunt of responsibility for cultivating these culturally relevant learning spaces on their campuses.
Instead, campuses should provide mental health services that are culturally responsive, via professionals who understand diverse student backgrounds and experiences. Offering counseling services, support groups and outreach programs designed for diverse communities can help students feel understood and supported.
However, students have to know about these services and be able to easily access them.
This requires campuses to provide clear and accessible support, rather than leaving it up to students to find their own way through their institutions’ ever-increasingly complex bureaucracies.
Many of us who care about the holistic well-being of our students are watching mental health problems proliferate on our campuses and have been disappointed by the neglect of this growing crisis.
We need to stop pretending we have had no role in creating this mental health pandemic.
Any institution that preoccupies itself with chasing money and prestige while expecting students to sacrifice their health for a degree cannot call itself successful.
For colleges to effectively address the current mental health crisis and effectively fulfill their social responsibility, we must accept that we are part of the problem. We should actively work to address it.
Samuel D. Museus is professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, San Diego. He is a nationally recognized expert on issues of equity and student thriving, and he co-authored the report “Degrees of Distress.”
This story about the student mental health crisis was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.