- Students' mental health has become more of a priority for colleges, which are responding by allocating more resources to address it, according to a survey of more than 400 college presidents by the American Council on Education (ACE).
- Anxiety and depression were the most common mental health issues presidents said they hear about, with 75% and 74% of respondents saying so, respectively. Leaders of public two-year colleges were more likely to learn of addiction issues and food and housing insecurity.
- The results track with broader discussions about the growing need for more mental health services on campuses, Hollie Chessman, a research fellow at ACE and a co-author of the study, told Education Dive in an interview.
ACE conducted the research to understand how colleges are dealing with "the crisis of college student mental health," Chessman said. "We thought it was important to focus on the presidents because they are tasked at the highest level with navigating some of the challenges that these issues bring up," she added.
Eight in 10 college presidents said mental health has become a bigger priority on their campuses in the last three years, ACE found. Slightly fewer (72%) said they reallocated or identified additional funding to address the issue during that time.
The top mental health concerns presidents listed track with those reported by college counseling centers in the latest annual reports by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) at Penn State University. On that list, anxiety and depression are top concerns, followed by stress and family and academic issues.
Students' use of counseling centers rose an average of 30% to 40% from the fall of 2009 to the spring of 2015 even though enrollment increased by just 5% during that time, the CCMH report found. Several campuses have said their counseling centers can't handle the demand.
Most respondents (92%) to ACE's survey said they rely on their vice president of student affairs or dean of students when addressing issues related to students' mental health. At private four-year nonprofits, the provost or chief academic officer was more likely to play a role, while at two- and four-year public colleges the campus police chief was more likely to be called upon.
College leaders overwhelmingly agree it is "very" important (82%) that they understand issues related to students' mental health. However, just 35% said they were "very" knowledgeable about such topics. A similar share said they had the required tools to address those concerns, with four-year leaders reporting higher rates than two-year leaders.
"I was happy to see that presidents feel like they are knowledgeable, that this isn't something that they don't understand," Chessman said.
Professional development and training would be helpful, respondents said, as would tools to help students build coping and self-care skills.
Colleges are taking steps toward the latter by teaching students how to de-stress through yoga and meditation and to identify burgeoning mental health concerns in themselves and their peers. Some institutions are centralizing their mental health services to make them easier to find and to reduce the stigma associated with using them.
Such efforts can be beneficial. One 2018 study found that involvement with one organization focused on mental health made it more likely students would reach out to peers who were struggling.