America’s universities are failing students facing mental health crises

This Thanksgiving, college students across the country are taking a temporary break from classes to celebrate at home with family and friends. However, for students struggling with suicidal thoughts and other serious mental health issues, some may be told not to return to university.

Colleges across America have largely lifted COVID-19 restrictions, but the pressures facing students today remain overwhelming. The American Psychological Association has called it a “crisis” and estimates that more than 60 percent of college students are currently dealing with one or more mental health problems.

Congress has done little to provide funding to address the stresses and challenges students face. And many universities do not provide students with the support they need to be healthy and resilient.

in 2019 students attending high-achieving schools across the country have been listed as “at risk” groups by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM). The reason: The pressure to compete at the highest academic level has led to higher statistics for behavioral and mental health problems. Others on NASEM’s risk list included children living in poverty, foster care and those with incarcerated parents.

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This was before the pandemic. Since then, students have experienced significant challenges, including social isolation and distance learning, which have disrupted their social and academic development. Life on campus may seem normal for college students at first glance, but for many, the lingering effects of COVID-19 are still very raw and very real.

According to statistics released by the University of Michigan, suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students nationwide. Approximately 1,100 suicides occur on college campuses each year. Almost 40 percent of the university’s own students “thought or considered” it. Such numbers have increased pressure and increased expectations for universities to meet the mental health care needs of their students.

Schools know this is a problem. Six consecutive surveys by the American Council on Education since the start of the pandemic have identified student mental health as an “urgent issue.” Last year, more than 70 percent of university presidents cited it as a top concern.

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But some of the nation’s most elite universities appear to be failing students in need of mental health services. A recent report in The Washington Post found that students at Yale University who committed suicide “are being pressured to drop out.” And those seeking reinstatement must reapply and waive their right to privacy by showing that they received adequate mental health care at their own expense upon departure, as a condition of returning to campus.

The problem is not unique to Yale. Before the pandemic, the Ruderman Family Foundation found problems with forced absence policies for students with mental illness at many Ivy League universities. All received a grade of D+ or lower.

This policy betrays students seeking care. Such policies prioritize legal protections over student welfare. Instead of expanding services and prioritizing mental health, some schools are compounding the problem by forcing students to leave their borders.

This year, Congress increased aid for youth mental health, but allocated a paltry $6.5 million to higher education. To empower America’s young adult population, we must destigmatize, not punish, caring behavior. We also need a greater commitment from our elected leaders to fund accessible and essential programs for mental health awareness and prevention.

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And such support must extend beyond university campuses. Young people everywhere have endured COVID-19 and many need help, including those in college and for those for whom college is not an option.

At a time when the need for student mental health services in college is greatest, schools are falling behind. University presidents overwhelmingly agree that mental health is the most important issue facing their campuses. They — and Congress — must step up and do more to be part of the solution.

Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at CUNY’s School of Public Health and Health Policy.


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