This Thanksgiving, college students across the country are taking a temporary break from classes to celebrate at home with family and friends. Yet 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 lifted their COVID-19 restrictions, yet the pressures facing students today are extraordinarily high. The American Psychological Association calls this a “crisis” and estimates that more than 60 percent of college students currently struggle with one or more mental health problems.
Congress has done little to provide funding to understand the stresses 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-achieving schools across the country were added to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s (NASEM) list of “at-risk” groups. Reason: The pressure to compete at the top academic levels has resulted in higher rates of behavioral and mental health issues. Others on NASEM’s at-risk list include children living in poverty, foster care and incarcerated parents.
That was before the pandemic. Since then the students have faced serious challenges including social isolation and distance learning, which have hindered their social and academic development. Campus life for college students may seem, on the surface, to be back to normal, but for many, the lingering effects of COVID-19 are still too raw and too real.
Statistics published by the University of Michigan rank suicide as the second leading cause of death for college students nationwide. About 1,100 suicides occur on college campuses each year. About 40 percent of university students have either “thought or believed” about it. Statistics like these increase the pressure – and high expectations – on universities to meet the mental health care needs of their students.
Schools know this is a problem. Six consecutive surveys conducted by the American Council on Education before the start of the pandemic found that students’ mental health was an “urgent issue”. Last year, more than 70 percent of university presidents named it their most important concern.
Yet some of the nation’s most elite universities appear to be failing students who need mental health services. Recent revelations by The Washington Post found that students who commit suicide at Yale University are “pressured to back down.” and those seeking re-admission must reapply and waive the right to privacy by demonstrating that, at their own expense, they must maintain reasonable mental health during their time on campus as a condition of being allowed back on campus care has been received.
The problem is not specific to Yale. Prior to the pandemic, the Ruderman Family Foundation found issues regarding forced leave-of-absence policies at several Ivy League universities for students with mental illness. All received a grade of D+ or lower.
These policies betray students who seek care. Such policies prioritize legal protection over student welfare. Instead of expanding services and making mental health a priority, some schools are forcing students who come forward to leave their walls.
This year Congress increased youth mental health aid but kept $6.5 million in funding for higher education. To harness the power of America’s young adult population, we need to stigmatize, rather than punish, caring behavior. We also need greater commitment from our elected leaders to funding accessible and core programs to address mental health awareness and prevention.
And such support should be extended beyond university campuses. Young people everywhere are enduring COVID-19 and many are in need of help – including college students And For whom college is not an option.
At a time when college students are most in need of mental health services, schools are falling behind. University presidents overwhelmingly agree that mental health is the number one issue facing their campuses. He and Congress need to step up and do more to be part of the solution.
Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a Distinguished Scholar in the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy.