College is often hailed as “the best four years of your life.” While it’s true that your undergraduate experience can be very fun and exciting, it can often also be some of the toughest years of your life. Freshmen in college are finally out on their own and free to make their own decisions about almost every aspect of their lives—what classes to take, what to eat for dinner, who to hang out with. But at the same time, they’re also often uprooted from many of their support systems, whether that’s their family, their friends, a church group or some other kind of community. For all the same reasons that college is exciting, it’s also extremely stressful, even under the best circumstances.
Since the 1990s, there has been more and more of a push to focus national attention on college students’ mental health, and for good reason, too. If a student is struggling with depression or anxiety, it might be hard for them to go to class consistently or stay late in the library studying. It’s easy to see how a mental health issue would impact an individual’s quality of life, but the recent push to draw attention to this national issue has brought light to another side of the equation: when one student is struggling with mental health, it impacts the entire community.
The most common mental health disorders on today’s college campuses are inarguably depression and anxiety, with eating disorders, substance abuse and self-harm following close behind. And it’s not just a handful of students who are struggling. According to a survey of students conducted in 2010 by the American College Health Association, “45.6 percent of students surveyed reported feeling that things were hopeless and 30.7 percent reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function during the past 12 months.”
In fact, mental health disorders are so prevalent on college campuses, colleges can barely keep up with the demand for mental health services. Certainly, part of this increase in demand is related to the higher rates of enrollment in colleges across the nation. It seems to make sense that as more students enroll in college, these colleges would struggle to keep up with the burgeoning student body. However, the Center for Collegiate Mental Health conducted a 10-year study examining mental issues on college campuses and found that the rise in demand for counseling services grew fives times as much as enrollment growth.
The demand has grown so much that even Congress took notice, when in 2004 the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act was passed. The act aimed to address the mental health issues that young people were struggling with by providing funding for three programs that have made a significant difference in youth suicide rates, especially on college campuses. Passing this law not only made a statistical impact, but it also helped break down the stigma surrounding mental health disorders just a little bit.
In fact, some believe that the slow but steady de-stigmatization of mental health issues is part of the reason why so many more college kids today are seeking counseling services. It isn’t because they are weaker or thinner-skinned than previous generations, and it isn’t because mental health disorders like depression or anxiety “didn’t exist” a few decades ago. The demand for mental health services is so high right now because more college kids than ever before feel comfortable asking for these services. Add in the fact that when young adults go to college, it is often the first time that they have access to affordable mental health care, and it makes sense that the demand for these services has increased so much across the nation in recent years.
Even though colleges and universities are having a hard time keeping up with the demand, they’re still providing lots of valuable services to students. Primarily, students have access to counseling services that are usually much less expensive than private practices. On-campus counseling also has the added benefit of being closely tied with faculty, so if a student is struggling in class due to a mental health issue, the on-campus counseling services provide another layer of validity and support.
Colleges are also providing support for their students in much less obvious ways, such as bringing puppies from a local shelter onto campus for students to play with or providing free yoga classes during finals weeks. Some colleges, such as Wake Forest University and James Madison University, even have designated nap rooms, where students can go to take a break from studying and get a little shut-eye. Programs like these promote mental health much more subtly than simply offering counseling services. They bypass the stigma associated with seeking help and yet still provide a stress release. Almost every college would admit that he/she is stressed and tired and could use a quick cuddle with an adorable puppy. Fewer students would admit that they might need professional help, and even fewer would actually take steps to receive professional help. While there’s always room for improvement, colleges have come a long way in providing these types of services for their students.