The Mental Health Crisis Among College Students and What We Can Do About It


You may have heard about a growing trend in college students seeking help for mental health concerns. While this is a positive sign that stigma has decreased, it also indicates that young adults are increasingly facing mental health challenges.

One study found that nearly half of college-age individuals had a psychiatric disorder in the past year. 73% of students surveyed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reported having a mental health crisis while in college. These startling figures have led many to call this trend “the college student mental health crisis.”

Why are we seeing these increases in mental health concerns, and what can schools, communities, and medical professionals do to address it? Here are some things to consider.

Entering College Can Trigger Mental Health Disorders

Many mental health disorders have an average age of onset in the early twenties. Additionally, major life events can act as a trigger for a disorder if someone has risk factors. Given these two factors, it’s not surprising that mental health disorders often start in college.

Even if someone doesn’t develop a formal disorder, they might still struggle. It’s difficult to navigate the stress of the transition to college. An overwhelming workload, unfamiliar environment, and other stressors can lead to a mental health crisis.

Teens Face Mental Health Issues Even Before College

Teens and young adults are facing mental health challenges even before entering college. Part of this could be due to the stress of preparing for higher education. However, it seems to be part of a larger trend. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the number of adolescents seeking mental health services increased in 2015 compared to the previous decade. About 13% of adolescents ages 12-17, or 3.3 million teens, sought treatment in a specialty mental health setting (inpatient or outpatient) in 2015.

Suicide Prevention Is Key

Suicide rates have tripled among young adults since the 1950s, and suicide is now the second leading cause of death for college students. Given these figures, it’s clear we need to prioritize suicide prevention.

Faculty and fellow students should be on the lookout for common signs of suicidality, such as:

  • Frequent negative emotions (depression, sadness, hopelessness, etc.)
  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Withdrawal from social interactions
  • No longer participating in favorite hobbies or activities
  • Neglecting personal appearance and/or hygiene
  • Changes in personality or behavior
  • Talking about death or dying

If a student seems suicidal or expresses suicidal intent, they need to be referred to appropriate help. This may not always be a school counselor. In an emergency situation, they need immediate medical attention at a hospital. They can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or text the crisis line by texting HOME to 741741. Some counseling centers even have walk-in hours for students in crisis. After a crisis has passed, students should receive referrals to the appropriate level of mental health care.

Possible Causes of the College Student Mental Health Crisis

What is causing the college student mental health crisis? There are multiple factors involved, including pressure to succeed in academics, financial stress, uncertainty about which major or career path to choose, increased social media use, and less stigma around seeking help.

Pressure to Succeed

Many college students feel an immense pressure to succeed academically during college. The desire to achieve high grades in a difficult academic environment can lead to increased levels of stress and anxiety. Students may overwork themselves and neglect their own well-being, especially if they procrastinate on assignments. Procrastination itself can be a coping mechanism for anxiety about grades.

Students may also be pressured to look to the future and decide on a career path. They may feel the need to obtain full-time employment right after graduation because they have invested so much time and money into their degree.

Financial Worries

College costs increased over 25% from 2008 to 2018. Many young adults must take out loans to afford tuition, room and board, and other fees. This can lead to financial worries as students wonder how they will pay back these loans after graduation. And the financial cost only increases the pressure to succeed in a student’s chosen field.

On top of all of this, textbooks and other supplies are expensive. Students may have to work one or more jobs in college to cover these costs. Juggling work and school can increase stress levels and anxiety.

Uncertainty About the Future

Many students enter college without deciding on a major. Even those who have declared a major may not have a clear idea of what they want to do with their degree. It can be hard for students to determine what career path they want to pursue. The broad nature of many degrees, such as English or History, leave open many possibilities. This increase in choices can actually cause anxiety.

Our society promotes the idea of immediately entering college after high school, and then immediately starting a career after college. Unfortunately, this can cause anxiety for students who need more time to decide what career path they want to take.

Increased Technology and Social Media Use

Today’s young adults are spending more time online and on social media, and this comes with harmful consequences. Social media may expose users to harassment and cyberbullying. Even positive posts can harm an individual’s self-esteem by causing them to compare themselves to others’ seemingly perfect lives.

Decreased Stigma Around Mental Health

What we see as a mental health crisis might simply be an increase in students seeking mental health services due to decreased stigma. Some researchers believe that the rates of mental health concerns are about the same as they have always been; students are just being more open about their struggles and are more willing to seek treatment. It’s difficult to know for sure because no study is perfect, and many studies of mental health concerns rely on honesty from respondents.

Regardless of what is causing the mental health crisis, colleges and communities should work together to address students’ concerns.

What Can Be Done to Address the College Mental Health Crisis?

Colleges should take the following steps to address the mental health crisis that is affecting students:

  • Increase awareness of on-campus resources
  • Develop preventative resources
  • Analyze crisis response and revise as needed
  • Provide off-campus referrals when necessary

Colleges should use multiple communication channels to let students know about mental health resources on campus. They can also develop wellness resources like brochures, blog content, and self-assessments to help prevent a full crisis from happening.

Even the best preventative measures may not be enough. Therefore, crisis response is another important aspect of a campus’s mental health program. Students in crisis need to feel safe and supported, not ashamed or worried about their future at the university following a mental health crisis.

Most colleges have a counseling center that employs licensed therapists, social workers, and other mental health professionals. This is a great starting point for treatment. When further care is needed, however, a referral should be made to professionals in the community.

How Local Mental Health Professionals Can Respond

Local clinicians should consider how they can take an active approach to address students’ needs. For example, a local therapist might visit campus and offer a free seminar on stress management. She could end the session by encouraging students to start regular counseling sessions if they are struggling.

Although insurance and billing vary by practice, mental health professionals should consider accepting student health insurance plans. This makes it easier for students to receive off-campus support during the school year.

The Light Program Helps Adults and Teens

The Light Program is an outpatient mental health program for adults and teens. We have locations throughout southeastern Pennsylvania. If you are a college student struggling to function, consider starting one of our intensive outpatient therapy groups. Your counselor will work with you to develop positive coping skills and problem-solving skills.

To work with a counselor from The Light Program, call us at (610) 644-6464.