The Kids Are Not All Right: College Mental Health Needs an Intervention

Does the typical college student understand the sort of mental health care options available to her? Dr. Victor Schwartz of The Jed Foundation continues our series "Big Thinkers on Mental Health."

Victor Schwartz:  There’s no legal requirement for schools to provide health or mental health services to their students.  Colleges do it because it’s the right thing to do and because it’s prudent.  I think there’s a growing understanding and it’s something that we at the Jed Foundation are trying to really make schools aware of that it’s in the school’s and the student’s best interest to provide a really broad array of support services to their students. The more we can keep students on track doing well in school and getting to the graduation line, the better it is for everybody involved.  One of the big challenges in providing services is that most schools actually provide these services for free.  It’s very, very rare for colleges to charge for the mental health services.  Of course students and their parents would say they’re charging plenty already.  But services are usually provided without extra cost to the students and that creates a real challenge for the schools to balance the cost and benefit of the range of services they’re providing.  The other challenge is that in the 18 to 25 year old age group many people have had either no experience with health or mental health care.  People who’ve had experiences as teens often haven’t had the greatest experiences because they’ve often actually been forced into treatment or, you know, sent to treatment outside of their own will.  So getting the people who need treatment into the system is often a very, very significant challenge.  And then it’s a challenge for the system to have the resources, the personnel, the number of clinicians and visits in order to take care of everybody who needs care.

The one thing we do know is that college students drink more alcohol than their non-college attending 18 to 25 year old cohort.  So clearly we know that college is a risk factor for increase in alcohol use.  And there are a series of problems that are coincident with that and that does present a serious concern.  We know about a third of college students will report an alcohol binge every two weeks or so.  So that’s a really significant number and we know that there are a lot of negative consequences associated with especially the high intensity drinking that sometimes goes on.  We know that there are fights that occur.  Obviously car accidents that occur.  And unfortunately there’s been tremendous concern recently about the increasing awareness around sexual assaults on campus and we know about two percent of students who drink report that they’ve had a nonconsensual sexual contact in the context of drinking.  And while that sounds like a low percentage the denominator of that fraction there are about 20 million students in college and about 70 percent of them drink.  Two percent of 70 percent of 20 million is something in the range of 300,000 incidents of nonconsensual sexual contact.  That’s actually a staggering number.

Leaving to college, going away to college especially if you’re away from home for the first time is a period of time of tremendous excitement and opportunity and, you know, thrilling challenges and increased freedom.  And at the same time a lot of things are happening.  It may be the first time you’ve actually been or spent time or lived away from home for any significant period of time.  It’s also a time of great psychological and maturational development.  It’s a time where you’re really making more strides toward growing up, towards establishing goals in your life to establishing serious relationships potentially.  There’s a lot happening in your brain and there’s a lot happening outside of you in your life and a lot of decisions and changes to contend with.  There are ways you can prepare yourself for that.  Learning about, you know, basic life skills.  Learning how to take care of yourself is one of the things hopefully you’ll have an opportunity to do while you’re in college but it’s good to come there with some of those skills already in hand.  A lot of these challenges can sometimes reflect themselves in increased levels of anxiety or depression. If you’re feeling worried about yourself, if you’re feeling different, if you’re feeling that things are changing in some way that’s making you uneasy at almost any school that you’re attending there are support services and help available.  There’s a counseling service.  You can find out about it almost inevitably on the school’s website.  If you’re in school housing there are RAs who can help you get connected.  There are people in student services and the dean of students office who can help you get connected to support and care.  So there are a lot of things you can do to learn more about how to handle these challenges, learn how to deal with some of the academic challenges through your academic advisors.  But there are counseling services who can provide more direct clinical care if that’s what you need.  But the services and support is available for you.

Big Think and the Mental Health Channel are proud to launch Big Thinkers on Mental Health, a new series dedicated to open discussion of anxiety, depression, and the many other psychological disorders that affect millions worldwide.


In the fourth video in the series, Dr. Victor Schwartz of The Jed Foundation runs through some staggering stats about mental health in college. University students are, in general, a very stressed-out demographic. Factor in things like alcohol abuse, homesickness, and elevated risk for sexual assault, and you've got quite the cocktail for mental health issues. Does the typical college student, asks Schwartz, really understand the sort of care options available to her? One of the major challenges of college mental health care is encouraging students to step forward when they are depressed or suffering from anxiety. It's in everyone's best interest for mental health to be a big priority. The trick is to remove the stigma from the process.

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