US universities are failing students facing mental health crises

This Thanksgiving Day, students across the country are taking a temporary break from classes to celebrate at home with family and friends. Still, for students struggling with suicidal thoughts and other serious mental health issues, some may be told not to return to campus.

Colleges across America have largely dropped their COVID-19 restrictions, but the pressures facing students today remain extraordinarily high. The American Psychological Association has called it a “crisis” and estimates that more than 60% of college students are currently struggling with one or more mental health issues.

Congress has done little to provide funds to understand the constraints and challenges students face. And many universities are not providing students with the support they need to be healthy and resilient.

In 2019, students attending high-performing schools across the country were added to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) list of “at-risk” groups. The reason: Pressure to compete at top academic levels has led to higher statistics of behavioral and mental health issues. Others on NASEM’s at-risk list included children living in poverty, foster families and those whose parents were incarcerated.

It was before the pandemic. Since then, the students have endured severe challenges, including social isolation and distance learning, which have disrupted their social and academic development. Campus life for students may, at first glance, appear to be back to normal, but for many the lingering effects of COVID-19 are still very raw and very real.

Statistics released by the University of Michigan rank suicide as the second leading cause of death among college students nationwide. Approximately 1,100 suicides occur annually on college campuses. Nearly 40% of university students have “thought or considered” it. Such numbers place increased pressure – and higher expectations – on universities to meet the mental health care needs of their students.

Schools know this is a problem. Six consecutive American Council on Education surveys dating back to the start of the pandemic have found student mental health to be an “urgent issue.” Last year, more than 70% of university presidents cited it as their most important concern.

Yet some of the most elite universities in the country appear to be failing students in need of mental health services. A recent Washington Post expose revealed that suicidal Yale University students “are being forced into retirement.” And those seeking to be readmitted must reapply and waive their right to privacy by demonstrating that they received, at their own expense, appropriate mental health care during their absence, as a condition of being allowed to return to campus.

The problem is not specific to Yale. Prior to the pandemic, the Ruderman Family Foundation uncovered issues at a number of Ivy League universities over enforced leave policies for students with mental illness. Everyone received a grade of D+ or less.

These policies betray students seeking care. These policies prioritize legal protection over student welfare. Instead of expanding services and prioritizing mental health, some schools are making the problem worse by forcing students who come forward to leave their walls.

This year, Congress increased support for youth mental health, but kept funding for higher education grants at a paltry $6.5 million. To build the strength of America’s young adult population, we need to destigmatize, not penalize, care-seeking behaviors. We also need greater commitment from our elected leaders to fund accessible and meaningful mental health awareness and prevention programs.

And that support needs to extend beyond college campuses. Young people around the world have endured COVID-19 and many need help, including those attending college and those for whom university is not an option.

At a time when student needs for mental health services in colleges are at an all-time high, schools are falling behind. University presidents overwhelmingly agree that mental health is the number one issue facing their campuses. They – and Congress – must step up and do more to be part of the solution.

Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a Distinguished Scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy.

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