In the past year, 41% of over 75,000 surveyed college students reported having major or minor depression, 36% reported having an anxiety disorder, and 14% experienced suicidal ideation.
This key finding from the 2022-2023 Healthy Minds Study by the Healthy Minds Network (HMN), an adolescent and young adult research organization focused on mental health, highlights the need for student mental health support.
In response to this national issue, colleges and universities, leaders, researchers, and organizations are developing innovative ways to reduce mental health stigma, advance conversations, revise institutional policies, and expand programming to better support the campus community.
Recent efforts by two leaders, Dartmouth College and HMN, are doing exactly that. An event hosted at Dartmouth, combined with their new university strategic plan, is bringing national attention to the topic and informing policies and programs across campus. In addition, HMN is creating a digital collaborative resource that showcases data-driven mental health initiatives proven effective in higher education.
This past fall, Dartmouth College, Geisel School of Medicine, and the C. Everett Koop Institute at Dartmouth Health Medical Center brought the conversation of student mental health to the forefront by hosting a panel, led by CNN correspondent Sanjay Gupta, MD, that convened eight surgeons general to discuss ways colleges and universities can support their campus communities. The historic moment marked the first time in 25 years that all the living surgeons general gathered in one place for a united purpose.
It raised awareness of the academic pressure and stress college students face, says Lisa McBride, PhD, associate dean for DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), professor of medical education in the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, and Insight Into Diversity editorial board member.
“I think the [event] actually elevated the need for us as administrators, and particularly college presidents, to focus on the mental health of students. … When I thought of this [panel], I didn’t know the impact that it would have,” McBride says.
Current Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and his predecessors met with Dartmouth student leaders and spoke at the panel on a wide range of topics related to the issue of mental health, including stigma, campus support, early diagnosis, and treatment. They also convened a roundtable event on the Future of Health Care, hosted at the Geisel School of Medicine, where they discussed a variety of topics including health care worker burnout and inequities in the health care system.
“I think that one talk does not solve the issue,” says Antonia Novello, MD, the first woman and first Hispanic person to serve as surgeon general of the U.S. “After that talk, many students will come out about their problems, and then the institution has to be ready to tackle [those issues] at that time of need.”
Since the panel, McBride has continued building momentum with collaborations among students, surgeons general, higher education institutions, and leaders in the field.
Dartmouth worked with The Jed Foundation (JED), a nonprofit that protects emotional health and works to prevent suicide for teens and young adults, to develop Commitment to Care, a strategic plan for new campus initiatives published in October. Focus groups across campus informed the project, which prioritizes improving mental health outcomes.
As a result, Dartmouth made revisions to institutional policies, such as expanding the Time Away for Medical Reasons policy and eliminating overnight fees at the Dartmouth College Health Service Inpatient Department/Infirmary. More than 440 faculty and staff were trained to champion student mental health and well-being last year. Yoga and meditation opportunities are offered across campus to support emotional wellness.
“The most important thing to remember is mental health is equal to physical health. … It’s OK not to be OK. But it’s not OK for you to stay that way.”
– Antonia Novello, MD
Geisel School of Medicine students also have free access to in-person campus counseling services and teletherapy. Digital offerings make it possible to recruit more mental health professionals of color so underrepresented students feel comfortable talking about topics like racial trauma, says McBride.
These policies aim to diminish the particularly low rates of mental health service utilization among students of color across the country. The highest annual rate of past-year treatment for Asian, Black, and Latino students was at or below the lowest rate of White students, according to the report “Trends in College Student Mental Health and Help-Seeking by Race/Ethnicity: Findings From the National Healthy Minds Study, 2013-2021.”
One person utilizing the medical school’s counseling is Macri Gil Diaz, a third-year medical student. Diaz was a campus mental health advocate in her previous role as co-president of the Latino Medical Student Association, and currently serves as co-chair of academics with the Geisel School of Medicine Student Government.
It’s essential for colleges to consider the learning and work environments of students when tailoring resources, Diaz says. For medical students, it can be hard to manage counseling appointments with barriers like changing clinical schedules and studies.
“I still go to therapy every week … it is the one thing that has helped me succeed not only personally, but also academically,” she says.
Healthy Minds Network
To further aid colleges and universities, HMN and the Mary Christie Institute are developing a digital repository focused on successful preventative interventions, including policies, programs, and services that address student mental health in higher education. HMN researchers are synthesizing available data and evidence to create a resource of best practices.
The project was prompted by a gap in information on population-level approaches to student mental health, says Daniel Eisenberg, PhD, professor of health policy and management at the University of California, Los Angeles, and principal investigator for HMN. In addition, digital products, such as training programs, are new, less regulated, and harder to evaluate.
Interventions that are experiential, or focused on active learning, tend to be the most effective, he says. As a result, HMN also will create an active learning network for experts, peer researchers, and campus leaders to further collaboration and advance effective programming on campuses across the nation.
Eisenberg predicts that the first report, a guide to digital mental health interventions, will be complete in March.
Resources for Students Seeking Help
- Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: Call or text 988.
- Crisis Text Line: Text “COALITION” to 741741.
- TrevorSpace: An affirming, online community for LGBTQ+ students.
- Search for your college’s counseling services, hours, and locations.
- Talk to your dorm’s resident adviser (RA).
- Reach out to trusted friends.
Information courtesy of the Mental Health Coalition.
Overall, world events are drawing attention to the issue of student mental health, Eisenberg says.
“But at the same time … mental health has always been a major concern for students and really, [everyone],” he says. “I think it’s more that there’s this increased awareness and attention to the topic — now more than ever.”
Colleges and universities aiming to further their mental health support can start by reviewing general guidelines provided by JED. Among JED’s list of actions are identifying students at risk, providing mental health and substance misuse services, increasing help-seeking behavior, promoting social connectedness, and following crisis management procedures.
While clinical services are important, many students can benefit from other forms of care, like group or peer-based programs and wellness coaching, says Eisenberg. Additionally, clear guidance for accessing mental health resources can be a priority across university communications.
DEI can also be considered alongside student well-being and mental health needs.
“For example, a sense of belonging on a campus can be good for mental health and also it’s important for equity and inclusion concerns. … ideally campuses are thinking about the intersection of these areas,” Eisenberg says.
Beyond institutional support, Novello says it’s essential for friends to check in on each other and watch for signs of distress, such as trouble sleeping, changes in eating habits, or loneliness. Community support encourages those struggling to seek help.
“The most important thing to remember is mental health is equal to physical health … It’s OK not to be OK,” she says. “But it’s not OK for you to stay that way.”
This article was published in our January/February 2024 issue.
Above: Dartmouth College medical students chat with Antonia Novello, MD, the first woman and first Latina to become surgeon general of the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Rob Strong)