The College Mental Health Crisis: Learning How to Cope
Dr. Gregg Henriques is a professor of graduate psychology at James Madison University and a clinical psychologist who writes about the college student mental health crisis.
When I was in college in the late 1980s, about 10-15% of the population struggled with what professionals might call "clinically significant" mental health problems. Now that figure is more like 30-35%. Over the last three decades, there has been close to a three-fold increase in mental health concerns. Given the toll that poor mental health has on individuals, this problem constitutes a mental health crisis among our youth.
Mental Health Concerns Are Increasing
There have been major changes in how people approach mental health challenges, including an increased willingness to seek professional help. There are many trend lines, however, indicating that this shift is much more than a change in attitudes. Data suggests this is a generational phenomenon, with concerns about mental health increasing since the 2000s among children, adolescents, and young adults.
The biggest shift in mental health concerns — particularly when it comes to college mental health — is with anxiety and related problems, such as increased feelings of stress, heightened mental vigilance, and the inability to cope with life challenges. We are also seeing large increases in rates of depression, suicidal behavior, and other forms of self-harm.
Generally, both undergraduate and graduate students report similarly high rates of mental health problems. However, there are some indications that graduate students experience more mental health problems since they feel pressured to produce a higher volume of work and often have difficulty balancing their lives with the strong desire to achieve in their fields.
The Cause of the College Mental Health Crisis
Before we discuss the root causes of the college mental health crisis, we first need to consider the fact that changing attitudes and an increased willingness to talk openly about mental health have focused our attention on this growing problem. Once we account for that, then I see three primary causes driving the crisis.
Following John Vervaeke, I refer to the first issue as the "meaning crisis," or our collective struggle to live in a culture that lacks a common sense of reality or morality. You can see this issue most obviously in the hyper-polarization of our politics. This crisis creates a sense of uncertainty and often results in individuals struggling to make sense of their lives in a way that feels deeply fulfilling.
Second, as Jonathan Haidt and others note, we have seen a major change in how we parent and raise our kids. There is now a much greater focus on safety, harm avoidance, and avoiding victimization, which I see as having the potential to undercut capacities for mature coping.
The third issue, as Jeanne Twenge has documented, has to do with lifestyle changes, particularly changes in technology and social relations that may lead to a greater degree of confusion and alienation.
Changing How We Think About Mental Health
Mental health is really about the form and function that one's life takes and whether it is aligned with one's core needs and potential. The individual's environment also needs to be integrated in a way that leads to fulfillment.
The most common causes of mental health issues tend to be that individuals do not know how to cope with negative emotions, they struggle with trauma or isolation, and/or they don't know how to direct their lives with a deep sense of meaning or purpose toward the larger good. In addition, they live high-stress lifestyles that are devoid of deep intimacy and contact with nature.
Freud said there was "love and work." These are two crucial domains, and I would also add "play" and "purpose" to this list. One of the basic ways to reflect on how one is doing is to ask, "How am I doing in the domains of love (relationships), work (school and career), and play (leisure, hobbies, entertainment, and pleasurable activities)?"
All of these domains provide the context to develop a meaningful narrative that lends purpose to one's life. So, my basic piece of advice for mental health can be framed in terms of loving, working, and playing with a sense of moral purpose.
Remember to Check In With Yourself
I recommend doing an honest, thoughtful, reflective check-in. This process involves asking questions, such as: "How am I really doing, emotionally and socially?" "Am I satisfied with my life and its direction?" "Does my life have a purpose and am I growing?" "Do I feel known and valued by the important people in my life, including myself?" "Am I having problems with anxiety, depression, or stress?"
How am I really doing, emotionally and socially?
Am I satisfied with my life and its direction?
Does my life have a purpose and am I growing?
Do I feel known and valued by the important people in my life, including myself?
Am I having problems with anxiety, depression, or stress?
To maintain good mental health, it's important to reflect on these questions. If you're unsure how to answer them, I recommend you take a screen on well-being, such as this one from Psychology Today. I would also suggest you take a screen on depressive symptoms if you are dealing with a lot of negative emotions.
Advice for Those Struggling with Anxiety or Depression
In terms of general principles, I recommend the "three A's," which are awareness, acceptance, and active change. Awareness involves increasing your understanding about what it going on, especially in terms of your feelings, thoughts, actions, and relationships. Acceptance involves being able to hold and tolerate negative feelings and distressing situations in a measured and mindful way. Active change means trying new things, even when it is difficult.
In short, if you are struggling with mental health challenges, I invite you to work on increasing awareness of who you are and of the negative emotions you are dealing with, where they come from, and what can be done in response.
I also recommend increasing your capacity for acceptance, including acceptance of painful feelings and past losses. You can also increase your engagement with things, others, and the world in general — even if your first instinct is to avoid and withdraw. Of course, this is difficult to do, and folks often need assistance. So, I recommend considering therapy, talking with a friend or loved one, or self-help.
Dealing with Conflict, Stress or Negative Emotions
My general approach to conflict and negative emotions is encapsulated in an acronym: CALM MO. It refers to an attitude of psychological mindfulness. The "MO" stands for meta-cognitive observer, which is the ability to shift the focus of our attention and to think about how we are thinking and feeling.
The CALM part refers to the attitude of the observer that we can all work to cultivate. The "C" stands for curiosity, which might lead to important questions, such as: "What is going on?" "What am I feeling?" "Where am I feeling it?" "What might be causing this feeling and why?"
The "A" stands for acceptance, meaning acceptance of feelings, experiences, the situation at hand, and other people. The "L" is for an attitude of loving compassion for one's self and for others. And the "M" is for motivation toward valued states of being.
When I am working with folks, I help them develop these skills, and when stress occurs, they learn to activate the CALM MO stance. For more on this approach, check out my article at Psychology Today.