With admissions decisions rolling out this month to many eager college applicants, this is a good time to step back and consider some of some of the shifting dynamics that parents and students rarely think about in advance. Going off to college is, without a doubt, a life-changing experience. But like all major life changes, it can be just as overwhelming as it is exciting. Adjusting to a completely new environment with different social norms and without the support of family and childhood friends — on top of new academic pressures — can have a significant impact on students’ wellbeing.
The public has become increasingly aware in recent years that college students face many mental health challenges, and that these can often interfere with academic performance. Such issues can result in students failing courses, taking medical leave, or even withdrawing from school entirely. In fact, a National Alliance on Mental Health survey of college-aged individuals diagnosed with a mental health condition found that 64 percent were no longer attending college because of a mental health-related issue.
As a professor and a clinical psychologist, I welcome the national dialogue around mental health issues on campus. I also know that faculty and staff play important roles in keeping college students healthy and productive. Not only is it good to know what kinds of programs exist on campus before accepting a college’s offer, but it’s worth letting these play a role your college choice. Right along with academics, athletics, class size, and campus location, the quality of mental health programs and services should be one of the determining factors in deciding where to matriculate.
Opportunity or Challenge: A Fine Line
While the college experience is brimming with opportunity, an abundance of new possibilities can also breed uncertainty. Depending on a student’s confidence and comfort levels, an opportunity can actually feel more like a challenge.
For example, gaining independence from one’s parents can translate into newfound autonomy, but it can also carry the pressure of making important decisions without structure, guidance and support from trusted family members. Similarly, making a fresh start can equal self-reinvention, but entering a new environment also involves the loss of familiar social supports as well as established roles, reputation and status.
There is also a culture shock inherent in the switch from high school to a less structured college environment. While a flexible, more customized class schedule offers the freedom to decide when and where to study or do extra-curricular activities, it also poses the challenges of planning, weighing options and strategizing to achieve goals in the face of conflicting demands.
Even being surrounded by so many new faces and ideas can be jarring. For some, meeting and mingling with new people from different backgrounds — without parent-imposed rules — can be a growth opportunity. But for others, it can also mean sharing close quarters with people who have different value systems, and it may even expose more “sheltered” students to unfamiliar and risky behaviors, like binge drinking.
Campus Resources Matter
Recent research from the American College Health Association showed that nearly a quarter of college students had been diagnosed with or treated for a mental health concern. While every student is unique, certain mental health conditions are more common across college campuses than others. The pressures mentioned above can aggravate latent conditions, and disorders that first appear in childhood can follow young people into adulthood. Some of the conditions most often seen on college campuses include anxiety, depression, attention deficit disorder and autism spectrum disorder.
While recognizing the signs of these mental health challenges is an important first step, college leaders can play an important role in arriving at productive solutions for affected students. In the aforementioned NAMI survey, mental health training for faculty and staff was rated extremely important by more respondents (79%) than any other related activity, such as the formation of peer organizations (62%) or health fairs (60%).
Colleges are responding. At Bryn Mawr we have implemented quarterly forums to help faculty recognize the signs of these mental health issues in our students, understand their impact on academic and social wellbeing, and be aware of cultural issues regarding mental health. We have also discussed strategies for helping students manage their academic demands while pointing them toward obtaining care and support for their issues. This year, we have involved students in these forums so that they can share important first-hand insights. Before your family makes a college decision, you may want to see if there is a similar program at your chosen school.
While it can be disheartening to know that so many bright young minds are struggling with serious mental health concerns, it is encouraging to see a growing spotlight on this issue. As always, recognition of the problem is the first step toward ensuring that students get the critical support they need. For students and their parents, this translates into recognizing that the transition to college life can be immensely challenging, and that mental health support should be given the consideration it deserves as they decide which school’s offer to accept.