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Mental health in higher education: complex problems require collaborative approaches

Manuela Restrepo
August, 2019


Discover our thinking on mental health in higher education and why complex problems require collaborative approaches.

Sixteen million. Remember that number. In 2017, an estimated 16 million undergraduate students were in a college or university in the United States. The experiences of those 16 million affect families, institutions, community organizations, and governments. 16 million students matter. Now factor in that 50% of the college students participating in surveys rated their mental health as below average or poor, contrasting with just 7% of families who reported their student having mental health issues. Then consider this: Suicide is the third leading cause of death among college students. It’s time to make this issue personal and systemic because (ultimately) many of us will be affected by the struggles and successes of these students.

Higher education is more expensive, more stressful, and more daunting than ever. The cost of attending a college or university has increased more than eight times faster than wages. Graduating is an important economic gateway and social marker for students and their families. Tiffany Beth Mfume, assistant vice president for student success and retention at Morgan State University, in an article related to her book on the inadequacy of completion/graduation metrics, noted that approximately 30% of low-income, Pell-eligible African American students achieve the expected six-year graduation rate.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center recently shared the sobering data that just 58% of the students who began college in 2012 had a degree of any kind six years later.  These realities affect under-represented minority, LGBTQ, and international students with more ferocity because of the challenges their identity groups face in the larger society, which affect their abilities to weather the cost of university as well as to graduate.

On campuses across the US, data indicates that a growing number of students with diagnosed mental illnesses are enrolling in post-secondary institutions. A comprehensive nationwide study led by Sarah Ketchun Lipson, PhD, looked at 10 years of data (2007-2017) from the Healthy Minds Study. Among the findings were that mental health diagnoses are increasing, stigma around seeking treatment has decreased (for some demographic groups), and the demand for campus counseling and health centers to serve more students has consistently increased.

Nathan Vanderford, Assistant Professor of Toxicology and Cancer Biology at the University of Kentucky and Assistant Dean for Academic Development at its College of Medicine, is part of a research team examining the mental health status of graduate students. They believe that this crisis is leading to a “fragility in higher education.” Graduate education is part of a larger system that shapes careers of faculty—not just students. Fragility in that system has cascading implications for individuals, families, and institutions.

When The Status Quo is Failing, Disruption Becomes Necessary

These data, trends, and observations have captured the attention of Reos Partners, in part because our core work focuses on enabling systemic breakthroughs for our society’s most complex challenges, and education is one of those key social systems that we are committed to impacting. Over the past three years, we created the Emergency Aid Lab to support post-secondary institutions experimenting with ways to address the issue of students leaving school because of a relatively small, but hugely disruptive, financial emergency. Few schools had a systemic response to this problem, and the Lab worked with campus teams to engage their whole system (students, faculty, and administrators from many different departments) in generating and testing new approaches for this long-standing problem. 

Might a similar approach begin to address the mental health needs of higher-education students? It is clear that what’s needed here is a collaborative approach that goes beyond traditional campus constituents. There are stakeholders in this problem who live well beyond the campus boundaries: health-oriented foundations with a national reach, alumni chapters of sororities and fraternities, health professionals, and certainly the students familiar with the problems, and their families. Thus far, many of the strategies to address the problem are confined within a single institution. This problem requires a more holistic approach that brings diverse stakeholders together to share perspectives, learn how to collaborate in more useful ways, test assumptions, and increase their tolerance for experimenting their way to new approaches.

There is some urgency to finding a solution. In a recent discussion with medical, nursing, and doctoral students, several of them described the impact of realizing they needed mental health support that simply wasn’t available. Campus counseling centers have long waiting lists. There are too few professionals, and a negligible number of counselors who can meet the needs of under-represented minority graduate and professional students. These students’ needs for psychological support are held in abeyance until a crisis makes that no longer possible, thus affecting their performance and success, and in some cases putting their very lives at stake.

Now is the time to work across multiple organizations and institutions in search of solutions that will meet the mental health needs of all 16 million-plus students in higher education. Not only for the sake of these students, but for the good of our society. After all, our shared future is very much in their hands.

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