Colleges Struggle to Address a Mental Health Crisis

Colleges Struggle to Address a Mental Health Crisis

Colleges Struggle to Address a Mental Health Crisis

As the Covid-19 pandemic worsened, expectations and resources on campus remained largely the same.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was produced as part of The Puffin Nation Fund Fall Fellows Program. 

Around 11:30 am on December 15, a Northeastern University student was found unresponsive in Snell Library, one of the main libraries on campus. Boston Fire and EMS arrived on the scene. Just a few hours later, the Northeastern University Police Department gave the library an “all clear.” The student was pronounced dead in an apparent suicide. The university administration’s response? Sending an e-mail to all students that read, “The university is making counseling and other mental health services available to everyone in the university community who needs support.” Finals week proceeded as normal, and students began shuffling into the library again.

“Someone literally died in the library, and it felt like nobody cared,” Varun Thakkar, a senior at Northeastern University said. “I didn’t feel like the university’s response was appropriate, and they could have done a lot more to support students in processing such a horrible event.”

According to Thakkar, Northeastern’s response to December’s tragedy did not come as much of a surprise. It’s part of a pattern that Thakkar describes as the university’s attempt to show students that it cares about mental health, while actually taking very few meaningful initiatives. During the pandemic, Northeastern gave students “mental health days” spread out over each semester that were meant to encourage rest during a strenuous time. However, many professors continued to assign work and exams on or around those days. “I don’t think Northeastern University is being negligent about our mental health, but I don’t think they know what’s really helpful for students,” Thakkar said.

The Covid pandemic has seriously worsened mental health for college students, as social life became limited, and expectations to keep up with schoolwork remained largely the same. In 2020, 40 percent of college students reported experiencing depression and 34 percent reported anxiety, according to the Healthy Minds Study, an annual survey of thousands of students. Sixty percent of college undergraduates also said they had trouble accessing any type of mental health care.

A junior at Tufts University (who declined to give his name because of privacy concerns) said he experienced two mental health crises during the 2021 school year. In March, he had his first panic attack, induced by the coronavirus pandemic. He tried to get ahold of Tuft’s Counseling and Mental Health Services (CMHS) and told them he was experiencing a “mental health emergency,” but the center said it didn’t have any availability. In September, he was able to schedule an appointment with CMHS, but it got pushed back, and was eventually canceled.

“Students’ mental health on campus has definitely worsened during Covid, and without an actual supply of therapists, it makes it really tough to work out your issues,” the Tufts junior said. “There’s this lingering sense of anxiety on campus, partially because there are so few services to help us with our mental health when we need it.” The Tufts junior was only able to address his anxiety through reaching out to a private therapist he used to talk to in high school—an option that he noted most students don’t have.

Similarly, at the University of Pennsylvania, students can make free appointments with licensed therapists at the Counseling and Psychological Services center. Although there are no strict session limits, the program is focused on “brief short-term therapy.” Students are advised to attend only a handful of counseling sessions before CAPS suggests that they find a professional outside of UPenn’s network.

The problem: “Private therapy can be expensive,” Darya Bershadskaya, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania said. “A lot of college students also aren’t familiar enough with how health insurance works to confidently navigate that system.”

Bershadskaya is the former president of Penn Benjamins, a student-run peer counseling group meant to serve Penn undergraduates that used to work closely with CAPS. The group was founded in 2014 largely as a response to a series of suicides in the Penn community; six students took their own lives in a 13-month period. However, since the death of Dr. Gregory Eells, the executive director of CAPS in 2019, Penn Benjamins no longer has an official point-person linked to the university.

On September 9, 2019, Eells jumped to his death from a 17-story building in Philadelphia. Earlier that year, Eells had been hired as head of the department after spending 15 years at Cornell University leading its counseling and psychological services. More than two years after Eells’s suicide, the university has not named a new Counseling and Psychological Services director.

Similar forms of peer-counseling groups are increasingly common at other schools across the nation. The University of Rochester has a service called UR Connected, a peer-to-peer network that pairs students who are struggling with a student who has received specialized training in supporting students in distress.

“Services like Penn Benjamins should exist on campuses regardless, because sometimes people just want to talk to a stranger about their problems,” ​​Bershadskaya said. “However, it definitely doesn’t stand in place of colleges providing students with options to get professional help. It said a lot that we still don’t have a new director, and that Penn barely addressed Eells’s suicide when it happened.”

In addition to peer-counseling groups, many colleges also have 24-hour HELP hotlines, which connect students to professionals trained in mental health. Students have mixed opinions on their efficacy. “Having a 24-hour emergency line at Colby College is better than not having one,” Lily Peterson, a sophomore at Colby said. “But I don’t think calling the hotline is anyone’s first instinct, especially if they really need help. The idea of suddenly talking to a stranger can be really jarring, and I think more access to longer-term mental health services would be more helpful for students.”

In 2019, almost 90% of counseling center directors reported experiencing an increase in demand for mental health services, according to the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD) Annual Survey. Peterson said she has been fortunate enough to be connected with a therapist at Colby College, who she sees twice a week. Peterson has been seeing her therapist since September and is allowed an unlimited number of counseling sessions. However, Peterson said her positive experience seems to be a happy anomaly, as most of her peers have had difficulty scheduling appointments and have reported that sessions with therapists have been largely unhelpful.

Seventy-two percent of college and university presidents identified student mental health as a pressing issue for this school year, according to a 2021 survey by the American Council on Education. In addition to increasing funding, colleges and universities need to take a more holistic approach to mental health, according to a 2021 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The responsibility of ensuring adequate care of students’ mental health should fall not only on college counseling centers but also on institutional leaders, faculty, and staff. “If I wasn’t specifically looking for mental health services on campus, they would be hard to find,” Thakkar said. “No one really makes them super known.”

Dr. Nicole Ruzek, director of counseling and psychological services at the University of Virginia, said that the lack of mental health resources is an issue not only on college campuses but in communities in general. “Historically, there just hasn’t been a very robust understanding of what mental health needs are, to begin with,” Ruzek said. “People know that mental health is an issue, but not entirely how to approach it.” While the stigma associated with mental health has decreased in the past decade, Ruzek said, there still remains much room for improvement. 

Over the last few years, many universities, including the University of Virginia, have implemented Telehealth services—allowing students to chat with a counselor about their concerns online. Telehealth services can offer students longer-term treatment, with the benefit of more flexibility regarding timing and location. Such services have increased during the Covid pandemic, but their efficacy still depends on students’ personal preference. “Most college campuses serve very diverse populations,” Ruzek said. “Having a diversity of mental health service options available to meet the needs of a diverse student population is really important.”

Some state-level governments have tried to step in as well. In December 2021, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont announced the launch of a $2.7 million program to help higher education institutions in the state improve their mental health services. Similarly in 2019, Illinois passed a law aimed at enhancing mental health services and awareness at public universities and community colleges. However, the estimated $17–$20 million annual funding necessary to implement the law has not been provided.

While colleges have made strides to better accommodate the mental health of students, many students deem their efforts to be focused on ineffective short-term solutions. Students are tired of facing issues ranging from difficulty in scheduling appointments to having to ration out finite mental health resources. Bershadskaya speaks for many, “Mental health on campus just doesn’t feel community-oriented or like a priority.”

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