Thrive on Campus//

Who Is Responsible for Addressing Mental Health and Well-Being in Higher Education?

It's time we broaden the scope of what and how we teach to be more supportive of student wellness.

Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

As a kid, I played a board game called “Life” with my parents.

Each player could make decisions about the course of their life that would lead them along a different path. I always chose to go to college, hoped to pull a “good” career card with high pay, and waited with anticipation to add the additional pink and blue pieces to my car that meant I had a partner and children to tow along the rest of my “Life” journey. It was calculated. It was simple. It’s how 8-year-old me thought life would unfold.

Spoiler alert: My real life did not unfold this way. Nor do I wish it had.

This simple board game does not capture the experiences, joys, or challenges that encompass real lives.

Nowhere along the game board would one see “Lose your scholarship. Withdraw from semester and skip next turn." There are no cards that read “struggle with your identity“ or “have trouble cultivating friendships.” There is certainly not a path for navigating chronic depression, losing peers to suicide, traveling the world, discovering new interests, feeling unsafe after a school shooting, or experiencing housing insecurity when your parents are deported.

These experiences are reality for today’s young people but are seldom represented. Experiences that make us who we are and continue to inform the work that we do and the lives that we build are never discussed or introduced in this game of "Life."

Or in school.

I was fortunate enough to have parents, a sibling, friends, and mentors who did help me navigate real life and who continue to teach me, support me, and inspire me. I developed interests and skills that help me cultivate my own mental health and well-being. I acknowledge my unique privilege in having unconditional support and in being able to explore these topics through educational pursuits.

However, not all young people have this opportunity.

College students with mental illness are significantly more likely to withdraw before completing a degree and suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-34. Up to 72 percent of college students suffer academically due to depression, anxiety, or stress, yet 77 percent have never received mental health support on campus.

Mental health is an undeniable and immediate concern on college campuses. We would be remiss to ignore this data as an opportunity to reflect on the roles, responsibilities, and structure of higher education. Do we provide comprehensive education? Or do we selectively deliver academic content without any responsibility to educate the values, skills, and health behaviors of our students? 

We need to look at what we are teaching, what we are promoting, and how we are supporting the future of our society.

The messages and lessons we learn in school do not fully prepare us for real life. The responsibility of addressing mental health and well-being has been shuffled along, much like the game pieces of “Life” I used to play.

We have enormous expectations of young people, but we do not prepare them to succeed. Students may be brilliant — they can compose a symphony or ace any chemistry exam — but if they haven’t learned how to manage their well-being, their gifts become a lot less useful to themselves and a lot less impactful for the world.

Primary and secondary schools have started to integrate basic social-emotional learning into their curricula, yet universities often claim that teaching life skills is not part of their responsibility. So whose responsibility is it?

Students are taught how to draw parabolas and conduct statistical analyses, but not how to foster positive mental health. Required health trainings deliver strong warnings on the dangers of substance use, but don’t seek to help students develop healthy coping skills to support a lifetime of well-being. Issues related to identity, LGBTQIA+ communities, disability, advocacy, and health promotion are often relegated to extracurricular interest groups. What if, instead, they were embedded into core curricula in a way that communicates an institutional priority of mental health and well-being?

People, particularly developing young minds, learn from what is modeled; we are taught by what we observe. Our cognitive landscapes and resulting behaviors are pruned by our parents, teachers and communities. The structure of university education normalizes — perhaps even romanticizes — imbalance, and minimizes the growing experience of distress.  By not prioritizing well-being in educational settings, we are teaching young people that mental health does not matter.

For the educational system to serve its mission “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness,” it must actually prepare students for real life and ensure equity through mental health support. This requires a paradigm shift, a true change in the priorities, services, and curricula that educational institutions provide.

As I think about the role of education, I replay this ideal in my mind: “Society is best served by assisting all of us in maintaining mental health, rather than trying to foresee which of us is most likely to act out when mental health support is not readily available” (Oslund, 2014). Services on campus have been demonstrated as insufficient to comprehensively support student well-being, but policy changes and academic wellness courses can reach a broader subset of students and begin to change the culture of mental health on campus. Infusing mental health and wellness into all aspects of university life requires collaboration from all campus levels, including academic, administrative, housing, and support services.

We are supposedly investing in institutions to educate curious minds and prepare people to be successful in the world. But how can any institution truly claim to be providing a comprehensive education if they don’t address, teach, and support mental health and well-being?

We need to consider the true breadth of education and evaluate what we prioritize. Students today have inherited substantial social, financial, and mental health stressors, and now educational institutions inherit the responsibility of changing the system to build a better future.

A version of this piece was originally published on Mental Health America.

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