America’s universities are failing students facing mental health crises

This Thanksgiving, students across the nation are taking a temporary break from class 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 campus.

Colleges across America have largely shrugged off COVID-19 restrictions, yet the pressures facing students today remain unusually high. The American Psychological Association has labeled it a “crisis” and estimates that over 60 percent of college students are currently dealing with one or more mental health issues.

Congress has done little to provide funding to understand the stresses and challenges students face. And many universities don’t give students the support they need to be healthy and resilient.

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

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That was before the pandemic. Since then students have endured severe challenges, including social isolation and distance learning, which have disrupted their social and academic development. Campus life for college students may seem, on the surface, to be back to normal, but for many, the lingering effects of COVID-19 are still very raw and very real.

Statistics released by the University of Michigan rank suicide as the second leading cause of death among college students nationally. Approximately 1,100 suicides occur on college campuses each year. Almost 40 percent of university students either “considered or considered.” Figures like these put increasing pressure – and higher expectations – on universities to address the mental health care needs of their students.

Schools know this is a problem. Six consecutive surveys by the American Council on Education, dating back to the start of the pandemic, have found student mental health to be an “urgent issue.” Last year, over 70 percent of university presidents cited it as their top concern.

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Yet some of the nation’s most elite universities appear to be failing students who need mental health services. A recent Washington Post exposé found that suicidal students at Yale University “are being pressured to withdraw.” And those seeking readmission must reapply and waive their right to privacy by showing that, at their own cost, they received adequate mental health care during their absence as a condition of being allowed to return to the campus.

The problem is not specific to Yale. Before the pandemic, the Ruderman Family Foundation uncovered problems at a number of Ivy League universities with forced leave policies for students suffering from mental illness. All received a grade of D+ or lower.

These policies are issued by students seeking care. Such policies prioritize legal protection over student welfare. Instead of expanding services and prioritizing mental health, some schools are compounding the problem by forcing incoming students to leave their walls.

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

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

At a time when student need for college mental health services is at an all-time high, schools are falling behind. University presidents overwhelmingly agree that mental health is the number one issue facing their campuses. They — and Congress — need to step up and do more to be part of the solution.

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

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