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  • Mental health on college campuses is declining.
  • In the past month, two student suicides and two other suicide attempts occurred at UNC-Chapel Hill.
  • Some experts refer to the pandemic as a “syndemic,” which disproportionately affects college students from marginalized groups.
  • Student mental health reform should start at the institutional level.

World Mental Health Day (Oct. 10) coincided with the same weekend a student died by suicide at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Another student was hospitalized following a suicide attempt.

The incidents echoed another student suicide and a suicide attempt that occurred at UNC-Chapel Hill in September.

To address the impact of the tragedies on student mental health, the University canceled classes the following Tuesday for a campus-wide Wellness Day.

“We are in the middle of a mental health crisis, both on our campus and across our nation, and we are aware that college-aged students carry an increased risk of suicide,” Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz wrote in a message to UNC students.

The American Psychological Association indicates that mental health on college campuses has been steadily declining in recent years.

The 2014 National Survey of College Counseling Centers reported that 52% of college students experienced mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, increasing from 44% in 2013. Many respondents indicated sexual assault and self-harm as contributing factors.

Indeed, college can be a stressful experience for many students, but quality mental health care is not always available on campus.

Following the suicides at UNC-Chapel Hill, some students took to social media to voice their concerns that the University lacked funding for adequate counseling services for its student body.

“What happened at UNC is a powerful, painful illustration of what happens when we fail to speak to our own wounds,” said Wizdom Powell, PhD, director of the Health Disparities Institute and associate professor of psychiatry at UConn Health.

“This watershed moment gives college campuses an opportunity to look at their budget priorities and ask themselves critical questions,” Powell said. “Are we centering emotional well-being as a value in everything we do?’”

Recent research shows that student mental health has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2020, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that adverse mental health symptoms, suicidal ideation, and substance use were significantly higher among young adults 18 to 24 years old, the range in which most students are enrolled in college.

As other researchers have suggested, Powell said that for young people, the pandemic has a “syndemic,” or synergistic effect, factoring in socio-economic, -political, cultural, and contextual issues that vary depending on a student’s circumstances, particularly their racial or ethnic background.

“Our young people are becoming adults during a tumultuous and uncertain time,” Powell said. “That to me is a perfect storm for an exacerbation of student mental health crises across our nation.”

It’s true that all students, regardless of race, have been affected by the pandemic in some way. Yet, students from minority populations are more likely to experience greater rates of pandemic-related stress.

Research shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic minorities, including job loss, financial insecurity, and severe illness or death from the virus.

In addition, BIPOC individuals tend to have limited access to quality and affordable mental health care compared with their white counterparts.

For many minority groups, the syndemic has also been amplified by racialized violence and nationwide protests.

“Minoritized students are not just bringing to college campuses the sorrows and the isolation of the pandemic, they’re bringing the sorrow of having lost loved ones and people in their communities from COVID-19 and for having to grapple with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor — you name it,” Powell said.

“We need to support students from both majority and minoritized populations, but we also need to pay attention to their specific and unique needs,” she added.

For many minority students, at the root of the syndemic is the absence of a robust, diverse mental health workforce. There are not enough mental health professionals of color who can effectively serve students from marginalized groups.

“This is less about the limited availability of services on a single college campus or collection of college campuses,” Powell said. “This is a structural issue plaguing the mental health profession for a long time.”

Powell said that investing in physical and mental health legislation could help create systemic change.

“The demand for mental health services is only going to increase, and I worry that we’re not paying enough attention at a structural level,” she added.

Stigma reduction

Despite that mental health equity is still lacking, the stigma surrounding mental health is starting to fade.

“The pandemic has also reminded us about our shared humanity and vulnerability,” Powell said.

Yet, the stigma reduction has presented a new predicament, as college counseling centers have become overwhelmed.

To meet the demand, many schools have started to increase their funding for mental health services.

For instance, colleges and universities across the state of Connecticut have joined the Jed Foundation (JED), a nationwide initiative that helps schools strengthen their mental health, substance use, and suicide prevention programs.

At the University of Pennsylvania, where 14 students died by suicide from 2013 to 2017, student-led mental health groups, such as Cogwell, provide peer support counseling to students experiencing mental health difficulties, especially during the pandemic.

As a Cogwell student leader, Kelsey Warren, a senior at UPenn studying international relations and data science, said she’s noticed that students have become more comfortable talking openly about their mental health compared with years past.

“What I’ve noticed among my peer group is the tendency to bring up these challenges in a casual way in conversation, which I can attribute to national dialogues and social media platforms that have normalized the idea that it’s OK not to be OK,” she said.

College mental health services can be an opportunity to check in and talk through the stress of college, issues happening at home or in relationships, and of course, the pandemic.

Many schools, including UNC-Chapel Hill, encourage students to talk about their feelings and emotions and offer mental health services both in-person and remotely.

Sara Makin, MSed, LPC, NCC, founder and CEO of Makin Wellness, said students don’t need to be diagnosed with a mental health condition to take advantage of the counseling and psychological centers offered at most schools.

“College can get busy and might push you to certain limits,” Makin said. “Most colleges or universities offer an unlimited or certain amount of free sessions to their students.”

In addition to counseling, Makin recommends the following self-care tips for college students:

  • Consider being an advocate for yourself and others.
  • Try to stick to a self-care routine.
  • If you can, focus on nutrient-dense foods and exercise regularly.
  • Try to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night.
  • Socialize with your peers, but respect your personal limits.
  • Recognize the risks of substance use and abuse.

The tragedies at UNC-Chapel Hill illuminated a larger issue affecting college students across the country.

Communities can support young people’s mental health by acknowledging the emotional wear and tear that accompanies coming of age during a pandemic, whether that’s lending a listening ear or encouraging them to seek help.

“We are a nation exhausted,” Powell said. “What can we as a society do to create a culture of caring in a moment when it’s clear we all need it?”