Students are struggling with mental health. Universities can do more to help.

·3 min read

The UNC-Chapel Hill community is grappling with a reported death by suicide and a suicide attempt over the weekend. It’s the second death by suicide and the second suicide attempt to occur on campus in the past five weeks. Experts say it reflects a burgeoning mental health crisis in higher education, one that existed long before the pandemic: college students are struggling, and many universities lack the resources to support them.

In the last decade or so, demand for campus mental health services has skyrocketed, and colleges are struggling to keep up. A Healthy Minds survey conducted at five UNC System institutions from 2016-17 to 2019-20 found that 31% to 47% of students have had a mental health diagnosis within their lifetime. COVID has only made this worse — eight in 10 students say their mental health has been negatively impacted by the pandemic, the UNC System office said in May. Sadly, suicide remains the second leading cause of death nationwide among college-aged adults.

UNC has promised additional efforts to support students, including a mental health summit and the Heels Care Network, a “campus-wide campaign to promote and support mental health awareness.” It’s similar to what occurred at the University of Pennsylvania after 14 student suicides in just four years precipitated a renewed commitment to suicide prevention and mental health.

The problem is that those efforts are reactive when they should — and could — have been proactive. That college students are struggling is not a new revelation, and the situation shouldn’t have to turn tragic in order for change to happen.

“There has to be upstream prevention and resources before the problem comes to suicide attempts,” Dorothy Espelage, a psychologist and the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill, said. “That’s what’s falling short, I think, on some college campuses. That they rely so heavily on a crisis, that it has to come to the point of crisis.”

One of the biggest failures of higher education is that it teaches students that their GPA is more important than their well-being, that high levels of stress are normal, that poor mental health is just the price you have to pay for academic success.

“The culture of academia, of competition, of performance, the pressure and the focus on individualism is very adverse to promoting what we know contributes to mental well-being,” Tara L. Bohley of UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Social Work told the Editorial Board.

Colleges and universities must work harder to foster a supportive campus climate for students — a community that creates a sense of belonging, and supports students at every level. Of course, campus counseling services need improvement. Most campus counseling centers are overburdened and underfunded, and only offer short-term services before referring students to an off-campus provider — which not everyone can access or afford. But counseling and treatment are only part of it.

“Not every student is going to walk into the counseling center, or go to student health, or go to other wellness resources. So I think there is really a need for a holistic approach from the beginning where people feel like they can find support anywhere on campus,” Dr. Tara Chandrasekhar, a staff psychiatrist at Duke University’s Counseling and Psychological Services, said.

A supportive campus means increasing access to resources. It means teaching faculty to identify and assist students in crisis, and to give grace when it’s needed. It means institutionalizing peer-to-peer support networks, because students who are struggling are most likely to talk to other students. It means having a comprehensive suicide prevention plan, and developing crisis response frameworks before, not after, a crisis.

“This has to be something that’s institutionalized. This has to be something that every faculty, staff, graduate student and undergraduate student has exposure to,” Espelage said.

Students shouldn’t have to wonder where to go or who to turn to when things get rough. The stress of COVID has brought new challenges, but the mental health crisis won’t leave with the virus. Colleges must be part of the solution, not the struggle.

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