by Alicia Betz

College students today are facing mental health issues more than ever before, and counseling centers are having trouble keeping up as students struggle and even drop out due to mental illness. Alicia Betz takes a look at this serious issue, including in this report:

  • An Inside Look at Mental Illness on Campus
  • The Most Prevalent Mental Illnesses
  • Why College Students are Struggling with Mental Health
  • The Prognosis for College Students with Mental Illnesses
  • Next Steps for Campus Leaders

An Inside Look at Mental Illness on Campus

My freshman year of college was tumultuous at best. You would never know it from the outside; in fact, I earned a 4.0 my first semester and received “The President’s Freshman Award.” On the inside, though, I was falling apart. I called my mom crying almost every day, it was a struggle to get out of bed every morning, and I honestly couldn’t imagine that I would ever be happy again.

From the perspective of my friends, professors, classmates, and advisers, though, I was happy and adjusting fine. I was doing well in my classes, I joined groups on campus, I attended sporting events; I did everything a well-adjusted college freshman was supposed to do. I hid it well, but every day I slid deeper and deeper into depression.

Photo by Arif Riyanto on Unsplash

Photo by Arif Riyanto on Unsplash

Unfortunately, my situation is very common. One in five college students and one in three college freshmen are struggling with mental illness, and many of them are very good at hiding it. A surprising number of college students never earn their degree, and in many cases, mental illness is to blame.

Without the unfailing support of my family, I would have dropped out. Thankfully, with the support of on- and off-campus therapists, my family, and my now husband, I made it to graduation happy and satisfied with a 3.98 GPA. — I even served as the program marshal for my college and had a job waiting for me. Had I not advocated for myself, though, things would have ended very differently.

Even when I did reach out to an on campus therapist, I was only allowed two visits before I was sent on my way. Nobody from the student health center checked up on me after the fact. It seemed the prevailing thought was that college students are young and resilient; they’ll figure it out. Unfortunately, they don’t always just figure it out, and more students need help than many people realize.

Most Prevalent Mental Illnesses

A recent report out of Penn State’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health found that the most prevalent mental health issues on college campuses are anxiety and depression. These two conditions have been on the rise for years, along with panic attacks, suicide attempts, self harm, and suicidal thoughts.

Other common mental health issues reported include addiction, mood disorders, and PTSD. Although not considered mental illnesses, students also often seek support for family and relationship issues, stress, and academic performance.

In an article for Psychology Today, Gregg Henriques Ph.D. calls the state of mental health among college students a crisis. His findings echo the report out of Penn State, and he cites evidence showing that today’s college students have higher stress levels than ever before.

Why College Students are Struggling with Mental Health

It’s no secret that college is stressful for students as they try to juggle classes, work, extracurricular activities, social lives, applying for jobs and internships, and more. What makes this even harder is that they no longer have their parents there to keep them on track, and they no longer have the physical proximity of close friends they’ve often known for most of their lives.

The stressors of college are compounded by the fact that the majority of mental illnesses present themselves during adolescence and early adulthood, creating the perfect storm for college students. Seventy-five percent of mental health issues manifest before the age of 25. Often, mental illness is exacerbated or brought to the surface by major life transitions, such as entering and/or leaving college.

Social media gets blamed for a lot of problems in the world today, and it may play a role in mental health struggles as well. Dr. Henriques states that “the hyper-connected world gives us ever more access to an endless array of choices and information that overwhelms and confuses us.” When students are struggling internally and see the perfectly curated lives of their peers on social media, they may begin to feel a dissonance between who they are and who they think they are supposed to be, fueling depression and anxiety.

Another reason there seems to be a crisis with mental health among college students today is that Millennials and members of Generation Z (the current college population) have been known to destigmatize mental illness, making it more likely that they will seek help. This is a good transition, but only if colleges are equipped to handle the influx of students needing help. It’s also important to remember that although this is the general trend, not every student struggling with mental illness will be forthcoming, so colleges can support their students by giving them easy ways to seek help.

Photo by Alex Jones on Unsplash

Photo by Alex Jones on Unsplash

The thing about mental illness is that it’s so personal, and while there are triggers and general causes to each person’s condition, it’s hard to say exactly what causes so many students today to struggle. In my case, it was unsurprisingly a combination of factors. The biggest factor for me was the fear of the unknown, combined with the fact that I was facing so many new challenges away from my support system.

For a friend of mine who also struggled with mental illness, it was the sudden onset of major life changes that surfaced her issues. She faced high school graduation, moving out of her home, starting college, breaking up with a boyfriend, and the death of a grandparent all at the same time. So while there are general stressors for college students that bring about mental illness, the best way to help students is to set up supports and programs to connect with them and meet them where they’re at.

The Prognosis for College Students with Mental Illnesses

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 60% of students who begin a bachelor’s degree program actually earn a degree within six years — which means 40% of those either drop out or don’t finish college.

A survey of students who dropped out of college conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found that 64% of them dropped out because of mental illness. Of those 64%, 45% did not seek help on campus before dropping out.

When asked what would have helped them stay in school, many stated that campus mental health support would have helped. The types of supports that would have been helpful for them include counseling as well as helping students advocate for academic accommodations, such as getting books on tape, receiving extended time to complete assignments, tutoring, etc. Most colleges do offer these supports, so the problem lies in making it clear to students that these opportunities are available, and giving them frequent and simple ways to reach out.

Half of the survey respondents reported that they didn’t disclose their mental illness because they were never given an opportunity to disclose, and they feared their reputation or the way they were perceived would change.

The report also found that mental illness is spread almost evenly among students in all four years of school, but not many schools actively look after the mental health of upperclassmen. In many cases, there are extra supports for incoming freshmen, and rightfully so, as a startling one-third of college freshmen alone struggle with mental health. When students move on to their sophomore year, the prevailing mindset is often that students have adjusted and are thriving. Because one in five students are struggling across the board, it would be beneficial to switch to a mindset that all students may need help, rather than to assume they are doing well.

Next Steps for Campus Leaders

The research is clear: college students are struggling with mental health. Many colleges are struggling to keep up with the demand of students who need mental health services. When budgets are tight, this may mean putting a cap on counseling sessions, such as I experienced, or decreasing outreach because counselors’ schedules are already full. These tactics are a disservice to students and are only brushing a very big problem under a rug. The Center for Collegiate Mental Health found in their annual report that counseling is effective, but only if counseling centers are equipped to handle the volume and the scope of student problems.

Hiring more counselors if budgets allow is a good step, but an even better solution is to try to meet students where they are at before they need counseling. College students need more than a week or two of orientation at the beginning of their freshman year to transition and be supported in their college journey. Students need to be educated on mental illness to aid in prevention, to be given strategies to cope, to be screened for warning signs of mental illness, and to consistently be given the opportunity to report mental illness.

The students surveyed by NAMI also spoke up about what supports they believe colleges need to provide. Some of their suggestions include mental health training for faculty and staff, suicide prevention activities, support groups, and information on mental health. Each campus should assess the state of their student population; a great paradigm shift from assuming students are okay to assuming they are not is the first step.

About the author:

Alicia earned her bachelor’s in education from Penn State University and her master’s in education from Michigan State University, where she also earned her certificate in online teaching and learning. She is a high school English teacher as well as a professional writer specializing in education. She uses her experience in the classroom both as a teacher and a student to write actionable and authentic pieces for various educational publications. Alicia can be reached at


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