The Real Crisis in Higher Education Is Student Mental Health

by Robby Franceschini

March 28, 2019 — Now is the time of year high school students hear back about their college applications and decide which school is the right fit to pursue their next chapter of their lives. Recent bribery scandals have put integrity of this college admissions process under a microscope. But other recent headlines highlight a much bigger problem in higher education: rising student mental illness.

A widespread problem

College students today increasingly suffer from mental health issues and face many barriers to accessing the care they need. Disordered eating and sleeping are on the rise among college students, and over one-third of college students report having trouble functioning over the past year due to depression. In surveys, almost a third of students reports feeling frequently overwhelmed. And these health access problems don’t account for the financial burdens imposed on students that may negatively affect their well-being.

Exacerbating these problems is a lack of access to needed supports and services. A national survey of counseling directors found that the average university has one counselor for every 1,737 students, even though the recommended ratio is one counselor for every 1000 to 1500 students. Students also report stigma, busy schedules, inconvenient hours of counseling service and a lack of information on services as barriers to care.

Schools slowly offering students digital mental health tools

Several schools are testing out various apps to support student health and well-being. Colorado State University, University of Wisconsin, and other schools are using the GRIT Digital Health YOU at College app to connect their students to resources on campus and push health-related content to students. Students who use the app report being better able to manage stress and learning about campus resources. UC Davis has utilized Healthy UC Campus funds to pilot the Kumanu app. Kumanu’s platform purports to improve personal well-being through the use of the science of “purpose,” with the goal of using this behavioral science to improve population health.

Another emerging solution is TAO (Therapy Assistance Online), which offers live video CBT visits and a digital library of tools to help augment strained college counseling centers. Several universities have turned to TAO to meet student needs, including Arizona State University, University of the Pacific, and Florida International University.

Schools have an incentive to adopt tools, but adoption trend is unclear

Given the headlines and statistics around youth mental health, it doesn’t appear that this mental health crisis will subside in the near-term. And colleges have an incentive to keep their students healthy and enrolled in school: institutions lose an average of $16 billion annually due to student retention failures. However, college uptake of various technological tools is uneven, and the target buyer isn’t always clear, given that each school administration is set up differently. In response to this crisis, advocates and innovators alike should work to educate higher education administrators and counseling directors on the digital health landscape for higher education and the solutions that may improve student health and well-being.