The Mental Health Crisis on Campus: Why Universities’ Responses Are Part of the Problem
The Mental Health ‘Epidemic’
Being a University student has always been a challenging experience. For undergraduates, leaving home and taking on new responsibilities related to coursework, building your own support system in a new place, and figuring out who you want to be can produce significant stress. For graduate students, its taking on being a full-time student while working part-time as a teaching or research assistant along with all other family responsibilities that contributes to higher stress levels. It’s normal for anyone undergoing these life changes to be at least a little bit stressed. However, for the past 20 year, researchers and experts have been studying how not normal the relatively recent rise of mental illnesses, particularly in the form of anxiety disorders and depression, on college campuses is.
A 2019 article in the New York Times found that 60 percent of today’s college students suffer from anxiety disorders and psychological distress. A 2014 Psychology Today article cites a 2013 survey of college students that found 57 percent of women and 40 percent of men experiencing episodes of “overwhelming anxiety” in the past year. In terms of depression, 33 percent of women and 27 percent of men further reported feeling “so depressed it was difficult to function” in the last year.
Studies have further found this to be a relatively recent trend, starting in the 1980s. According to a 13-year study conducted by Kansas State University on counselor assessments of clients, researchers found a 58% increase in rates of anxiety and “stress-related problems” and doubled rates of depression in their student population from 1988 to 2001 (IBHE, 2007). What’s making the problem even worse are the university counseling and mental health services struggling to keep up with the demand of students in need. In a 2003 article, psychologist Dr. Martha Anna Kitrow notes that the increased demand for mental health services has not been met with a corresponding increase in resources for students on college campuses.
The mental health crisis has gotten so bad, some are even referring to it as an ‘epidemic’ amongst university students. But what has been causing this over 40 year old ‘epidemic’? Why is it happening now and not in previous generations of students who had experienced the Depression, World War II, and the Vietnam War? Are students today really overly coddled ‘snowflakes’ who cannot handle the stress of university life as a result of helicopter parents? Or is there something else going on that we are perhaps not seeing in academic institutions?
Researchers and experts have identified a range of psychological and environmental causes for the mental health crisis amongst students. In terms of psychological factors, biochemical imbalances and the onset of psychological disorders like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia manifest around the age that students go to college (Kitrow, 2003). This, however, does not explain why there are particularly such higher rates of anxiety and stress-related problems on college campuses today than there were 40 years ago.
In terms of environmental factors, experts point to a range of pre-existing factors that students bring with them onto campuses that, combined with the pressures to succeed academically and the lack of a support system on campus, contribute to a rise in anxiety and depression. These pre-existing factors include childhood trauma, divorce, family dysfunction, and the general ‘downplaying’ of mental health issues by students and their families (IBHE, 2007).
Environmental stressors that students face once they get to college include the high academic expectations that university professors set for students (IBHE, 2007). For many incoming college students, high school was relatively easy and many got used to getting perfect grades with little struggle. Upon getting to college however, they face the shock that their performance is not enough and the immense pressure to develop the required academic skills in as little time possible. This need to compensate (or overcompensate) for their initial academic performances often leads to perfectionism. While we often praise perfectionist behaviors for inspiring hard work and perseverance, perfectionism is nonetheless harmful and dangerous as anxious students work so hard to achieve impossible standards and are left devastated and depressed when their efforts inevitably fail to meet these standards.
While these environmental stressors may account for the high anxiety some students are feeling, it still does not explain why an entire generation of young people, from different backgrounds and attending university in different countries, are all experiencing such debilitating mental health issues. The answer may not lie in the parents or students themselves but perhaps in the academic institutions students attend.
What Role do Universities Play in the Mental Health Crisis?
Over the years, universities have more and more acknowledged the mental health needs of their students. A 2019 Inside Higher Ed article reported that more than 80 percent of college presidents found mental health to be more of a priority on their campus now than it was three years ago, based on a recent American Council on Education Survey. This same article notes that nearly two-thirds of deans surveyed by the Council of Graduate Students agreed that current graduate students are struggling more today to maintain their mental health than five years ago.
So what are universities’ responses to this crisis? During my time at my own former university where I was a graduate student, there was much talk going on related to students’ mental health needs. The Graduate Student Council even released a Mental Health Bill of Rights and Responsibilities outlining the roles of both students and the university in the mental health care of students. In response, the university created a student care coordinator position whose role is to refer students to the appropriate resources available on campus that best meet their immediate needs.
While these campus resources are intended to be holistic in encompassing different areas of wellbeing (i.e. spiritual, physical, emotional, etc.), their reach is limited in scope. First, the actual mental health care provided by counseling centers is limited to a small number of counselling sessions. Mental health struggles related to anxiety, depression, and perfectionism are most often not resolved in 5 or 6 counselling sessions and require more longer-term care to properly address. Second, the approach other resources take to addressing mental health issues amongst students is highly individualistic and places personal responsibility on the students in dealing with these issues.
For example, I couldn’t tell you how many emails I received at the start of every semester advertising workshops addressing imposter syndrome, perfectionism, and advocating for the use of mindfulness and self-care in dealing with stress and anxiety. Other student care services available focus primarily on the ‘skills development’ of students in terms of coping with stress and anxiety and coach them towards self-care and self-advocacy. Thus, whatever emotional or academic issue students encounter on campus, it is up to the student to develop the ‘coping’ skills necessary to manage their ‘negative’ emotions while cultivating ‘positive’ emotions.
In other words, if you constantly feel anxious over the quality of your work in school and only feel relief from the anxiety by falling into depression, then it is your coping skills that needs to be worked on. If you feel like you do not belong on campus and like you are not good enough, then it is your imposter syndrome that needs to be worked on. If you feel like you constantly need to be productive and cannot take a break, then it is your perfectionism that needs to be worked on.
Most of the mental health services offered on college campuses all send the same message to students: “You need to constantly self-improve and whatever obstacle you encounter here, it is merely a matter of developing the skills to manage and regulate it. If you cannot manage and regulate it and fail here as a result, then it is your personal responsibility.”
The Neoliberal Turn on College Campuses
“Economics are the method. The object is to change the soul”
This message did not come out of nowhere on college campuses and actually started as a result of what is referred to as the ‘Neoliberal Turn’ that many institutions in government, academia, and the non-profit industry began to adopt. In “Neoliberalism and Psychological Ethics,” Jeff Sugarman (2015) identifies the Neoliberal Turn as an ideological shift in institutions where humans are conceived as “a set of assets – skills and attributes – to be managed, maintained, developed, and treated as ventures in which to invest” (p. 104). He most importantly notes:
“As enterprising subjects, think of ourselves as individuals who establish and add value to ourselves through personal investment (in education or insurance), who administer ourselves as an economic interest with vocabularies of management and performativity (satisfaction, worth, productivity, initiative, effectiveness, skills, goals, risk, networking, and so forth), who invest in our aspirations by adopting expert advice (of psychologists, personal trainers, dieticians, life coaches, financial planners, genetic counselors), and who maximize and express our autonomy through choice (mostly in consumerism)” (p.104).
Thus, human beings are not whole, multidimensional people with complex emotions, thoughts, and deeper, spiritual needs but essentially entrepreneurs who offer their assets up to the economy as if they were a product or a brand. We see this a lot, primarily on social media sites with influencers and creators essentially selling themselves as a brand to the public, but it has permeated many other industries as well, particularly academia.
The Neoliberal Turn was firmly set in place by the 1980s, the same time the mental health crisis of university students began spiraling.
Healing from Toxic University Ideologies and Cultures
As a teaching assistant, I saw the many harmful impacts of this neoliberal ideology on my students as well as on myself as a graduate student. The emphasis on self-regulation and self-improvement made us constantly feel like any issue we encountered was our fault and we just needed to learn how to manage our feelings, emotions, expectations, and reactions better. We needed to constantly improve ourselves as students and workers so we could produce more. Our values lied exclusively in our productivity. The exhausting imperative to constantly improve ourselves while regulating our human emotions and feelings fuelled the cycle of anxiety which inevitably lead to phases of depression when we realized we could no longer hold our emotions and feelings in.
The harmful effects of neoliberal ideologies has been documented by scholars in different fields including psychology,political science, sociology, and theology, among countless others. Writing as a pastoral counselor and scholar, Bruce Rogers-Vaughn (2016) describes the particularly dangerous suffering that has emerged as a result of neoliberal ideologies. Because of its emphasis on personal responsibility and individualism, neoliberalism separates us from the social contexts in which we live in and forces us to ignore the many wider, societal-level forms of oppression that we encounter on a daily basis like racism, sexism, capitalism/economic inequality, heterosexism, ableism, and so on. Thus, our many sufferings that manifest as a result of these social inequalities are reduced to “signs of personal failure” and we are left alienated, alone, and ashamed of ourselves; all we can do is suffer in silence (Rogers-Vaughn, 2016, p. 126).
I have seen how damaging this ideology has been on college campuses, particularly for students of color and members of other marginalized populations. Even in spaces on campus that do acknowledge societal-level forms of social inequality and oppression, there is still this message of individualism and personal responsibility as acceptance of diversity and inclusion initiatives reduce race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, and other differences to vapid celebrations of difference and resist any discussions of power dynamics and everyday forms of oppression. Any acceptance of oppression is reduced to individual, micro-level instances on the part of the individual i.e. the professor who is accused of microaggressions and not the society that perpetuates it. Thus, students are ultimately gaslit into believing that their feelings of marginality are made up and go crazy second-guessing themselves and their intuitions in these spaces.
Students need to heal from the many damages that this ideology and culture has inflicted on them. It is not a simple matter of telling students that neoliberalism is behind their suffering and that they are not to blame for their struggles. Healing requires a long process of unlearning everything neoliberalism has taught them: that they are worth more than what they produce; that they can accept who they are rather than constantly ‘improving’ themselves; that their feelings of sadness, anger, and frustration are not ‘negative emotions’ in need of managing and regulating but important to acknowledge and feel; and that they are not in this alone in their suffering.
I emphasize healing and unlearning in my philosophical approach to academic coaching and providing student support. As a holistic academic coach, I do not separate students’ academic lives from their personal lives. I acknowledge that every facet of a students’ life is connected and provide a space for them to truly express themselves and their anger, joys, and frustrations with the academic process. In this space, I validate students’ feelings and work with them to accomplish their academic or personal goals while helping them heal from the many harmful neoliberal messages they have internalized as a student.
I worry of what will happen to students’ mental health in the context of a pandemic. As universities scramble to provide students with more mental health services online, I fear that the alienation and isolation students already feel as a result of neoliberal culture will worsen as students are physically separate from each other. I challenge other academic coaches, counselors, professors, advisors/mentors, and any other group that works with students to empathize with them and see their students (as well as themselves) as whole, interdependent human beings who are more than just a set of assets “to be managed, maintained, developed, and treated as ventures in which to invest” (Sugarman, 2015, p. 104).
Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE). (2007). College Student Mental Health – A Crisis Underway. Report submitted to IBHE by the Faculty Advisory Council and the Student Advisory Committee. Accessed September 20, 2020 on: http://www.ibhe-fac.org/Documents/facmental07.pdf
Kitrow, M.A. (2003). The Mental Health Needs of Today’s College Students: Challenges and Recommendations. NASPA Journal, 41(1), 165-179.
Rogers-Vaughn, B. (2016). Neoliberalism as a Paradigm for Human Affliction: Third-Order Suffering as the New Normal. In B. Rogers-Vaughn, Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age (pp. 109–130). https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-55339-3_4
Sugarman, J. (2015). Neoliberalism and Psychological Ethics. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 35(2), 103-116.