College Students and Mental Health: Breaking the Taboo

Mental Health for College Students. Breaking the Taboo

Emerging adulthood is a time when the world stretches before us. Like gazing up at the clear night sky, it is at once thrilling and vaguely frightening. Where do we fit among the vast possibilities? With the newfound autonomy of young adulthood comes the fading of support structures we’d once known. Faced with the task of defining ourselves as adults, we feel “in-between.” The role of parents in our lives diminishes with no set support structure taking its place. With that there is uncertainty, exploration, and confusion.

Emergence in any form is inherently fragile. We are vulnerable to the stress brought about by transition. There is arguably no greater transition, after birth and death, than emerging as adults. For many, college is the vehicle propelling our journey into adulthood.

In light of this, and reinforced by the COVID-19 pandemic, redoubling efforts to discuss, understand, and treat mental health among college students has never been more important.

Stress and Mental Health in Young Adults

Stress is an integral part of the human condition. Without stress you or I wouldn’t be here. It is an evolutionary adaptation; a defensive mechanism that has kept us alive through the dangers of an emerging species. It comes, however, with tradeoffs.

Modern life is often maladaptive to a psychology evolved for the world in which our species grew up. It can be especially maladaptive for individuals growing into modern adulthood, a time of inherent vulnerability combined with the oncoming pressures of college life.

According to a paper published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, citing a survey by the World Health Organization, one-third of all college freshmen report having had mental health issues in the years leading to college. The college years, write the authors, are the “peak period for onset of many common mental disorders, particularly mood, anxiety, and substance use disorders.”

An article in Best Colleges lists the 5 top mental health challenges facing young adults entering college. They include depression, anxiety, addiction and substance abuse, eating disorders, and suicide ideation (thoughts, planning, or actual attempts of suicide).

Increasing Awareness of a Growing Crisis

A 2018 article in Higher Education Today reports on the “worsening” mental health crisis in U.S. colleges and universities. Campus counseling centers across the country are experiencing “increased, unmet demand,” write authors Hollie Chessman and Morgan Taylor.

Citing national assessment data, Chessman and Taylor show “rising levels of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation among the college population.”

An American Council on Education survey, also cited by Chessman and Taylor, shows that eight in ten college presidents consider student mental health as a greater priority over the past three years (since 2018).

One president wrote that “mental health has become a major issue for retention and the general well-being of our students . . . this is in my top three areas of improvement for my college.”

What factors will lead to this improvement?

Resilience – Helping College Students Cope

We all have a psychological baseline. but our emotions are never static, nor is the environment or physiology that drives them. We deviate from our baseline. The ability to bounce back from stress to a normative emotional state determines our resilience to adversity.

“Substantial transition and change often include a loss of internal baseline support. Loss of support creates disequilibrium,” concludes Joel Hathaway in Why College Students Experience Crisis: Identity Challenges Arising from Loss of Baseline Support.

“Part of the solution” writes Marvin Krislov in Forbes, “is working to develop resilience among our incoming college students.”

Krislov emphasizes three suggestions from the American Psychological Association that can help students build their resilience:

  • Have a strong support network: Having a network of friends, parents, mentors, and counselors who will listen to a student’s issues helps them maintain a resilient outlook on whatever those issues may be. It can also help identify warning signs and at-risk behaviors.
  • Focus on reaching goals in small steps: College is overwhelming. Learning early on how to break up goals and expectations into small, more easily accomplished tasks helps to maintain a sense of control and progress.
  • Build self-confidence: By utilizing the first two steps, students will gain confidence in their ability to bounce back from challenging situations. Each small step builds resilience.

All these steps, maintaining supportive relationships, managing goals effectively, and building healthy self-confidence, are a product of emotional intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence, Resilience, and the Sane Student

A paper published in Frontiers in Education describes a resilient person for whom “positive outcomes occur despite challenges they face.” A key ingredient to this positive outlook, the paper argues, is emotional intelligence.

According to authors Christopher Thomas and Staci Zolkoski, emotional intelligence “consists of a constellation of abilities allowing individuals to process and use emotional-laden information in a manner that facilitates effective problem-solving.”

Christopher Ruel, writing in Teaching Emotional Intelligence to Students, explains the hallmarks of this “constellation of abilities” as:

  • Recognizing and effectively managing one’s emotions
  • Leveraging emotions to solve real-world problems
  • Communicating effectively in emotionally charged situations
  • Making good decisions
  • Building effective relationships
  • Managing stress

Like cognitive intelligence, emotional intelligence is a means for understanding ourselves and the world around us. That understanding leads to effective problem-solving and generally positive outcomes.

“A review of the literature,” write Thomas and Zolkoski, “highlights that learners with higher levels of emotional intelligence often experience increased psychological well-being, persistence, and retention.”

When knocked off our baseline, emotional intelligence and resilience help us land on our feet. For young undergrads, landing on their feet is made that much more difficult when the ground beneath them is unfamiliar. They often need support to help them find that ground.

College and the Sane Student: Supporting Mental Health for College Students

In its broadest perspective, the most effective way of supporting student mental health is removing the taboo that can shroud students in isolation and emotional distress. This starts on day one.

Individual empathy and compassion are key elements for identifying students struggling to cope with their new situation. Trudi Kessler, Sextant Marketing’s Associate Vice President, Student Success & Retention, emphasizes the point by example through her many years of working with students one-on-one.

“Whenever I encountered a student who I felt may be at risk, I would personally walk them over to Villanova’s mental health counseling office,” Kessler says of her work at Villanova University as Assistant Dean in the Office for Undergraduate Students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

In all circumstances, going “above and beyond” at an individual level is critical for student well-being and identifying those at risk, Kessler says. That extends to online students as well, particularly considering the COVID-19 health crisis.

Dr. Kessler’s role at Sextant builds on her experience working one-on-one with students, extending to non-traditional students facing a multitude of challenges and responsibilities. Counseling incoming and enrolled students at Houston Baptist University’s BSN program, Dr. Kessler works predominantly with women “who have kids, families, and aging parents,” she says. “Many are going through major life changes or are in the military.”

While also balancing careers as RNs, the state of Texas Mandates these working professionals earn a BSN to continue their work as nurses. That’s a lot of stress. “The conversations with this particular group tend to be deeper in nature because of where they are in life,” Kessler says.

Oriented Toward Ongoing Mental Health

“Colleges provide orientation sessions on drug and alcohol use, sexual violence prevention, and other student health and lifestyle topics, so why not address mental health more directly?,” asks Amy Eva in the article How Colleges Today Are Supporting Student Mental Health.

Eva suggests a range of approaches, including panel discussions, videos, small group discussions, and student testimonials. Making these sessions relatable is important, Eva explains. Using a storytelling approach provides students an open space to discuss and relate their own feelings with their fellow students.

Integrating mental health awareness, dialog, tools, and support throughout student’s enrollment carries forward the opportunities of orientation.

Every institution will implement a plan according to their needs, ability, and circumstance. Any plan can include the following:

Free mental health screenings:

From on-campus kiosks to online self-testing and assessments, these free, anonymous tools and resources help keep students connected to their emotional well-being. These services are also useful for encouraging students to seek further help.

Programs and initiatives: reports that access to on-campus classes and online resources teaching meditation, breathing exercises, and other stress management techniques are effective resilience-building tools.

Identify at-risk students:

Mental health services:

Examples of support and services colleges can provide include:

    • JED Campus, offers, among its many services, an action planning guide for college administrators. With more than 450 campus chapters, the mental health advocacy group promotes comprehensive evidence-based mental health and suicide prevention programs.
    • Active Minds brings mental health awareness and dialog out into the open, with measurable positive results.
    • Kognito is an online simulation program used by more than 350 colleges to help students learn and talk about mental health issues with friends who are suffering from emotional distress.

Happy Days? Breaking the Taboo of Mental Health

It is tempting to look upon our high school and college years through the soft golden haze of Happy Days nostalgia. After all, our traditional college years are the best times of our lives. Or so the saying goes.

Indeed, for many young women and men, college is a rite of passage. A time of becoming. We chart our path, engage our intellect, forge great loves, and launch lifelong friendships. Our traditional college years are viewed fondly as a time of flourishing, learning, and connection. We assume our roles as adults in the broad scope of human endeavor.

College can be all these things for young students, but we can’t ignore the other side of the story. There is a quiet epidemic that over the years has grown in silence.

For psychologists the word “abnormal” is an objective term, a deviation from an observed nominal state. For most of us we understand it in a more subjective, qualitative manner. Something of which we dare not speak. Who wants to be considered abnormal?

In an inherently vulnerable circumstance, susceptible to mental health issues, students too easily become overwhelmed, isolated, and convinced of their “abnormality.” And thus, we too often allow the segment of society most susceptible to mental health disorders to struggle. Even as they navigate what is likely the most significant, life-altering transition they’ve yet experienced.

The urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic brings into focus the ongoing mental health challenge on college campuses. Hopefully, this urgency will translate to better outcomes and break the taboo where it still exists.