Combatting The College Mental Health Crisis

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New and returning students are flooding college campuses across the country. While the start of a new semester is an exciting time for many students, it is accompanied by a swell of anxiety and dread for those struggling with their mental health in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the last decade has seen a steady increase in rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues amongst college students and young adults, the pandemic sharply escalated this alarming trend.

A recent survey conducted by the University of Michigan found that more than 60% of college students “met criteria for one or more mental health problems.” This is a whopping 50% increase in less than a decade. Studies further indicate that marginalized communities have been disproportionately affected—students of color have experienced mental health struggles at a higher rate, and a review published by Yale researchers in 2022 noted that students in lower socioeconomic groups were more susceptible to mental health struggles than their peers.

On-campus counseling services struggle to keep up in the midst of increasing demand for mental health services amongst college students. A College Pulse survey of 2,000 college students from across the U.S. showed that 68% of students surveyed had never used on-campus mental health services. When asked what they want their colleges to invest in to better their mental health services, students most commonly answered: the “expansion of on-campus counseling staff.”

Amongst college students in particular, mental health struggles both affect and are affected by the strenuous academic demands of college. When asked which stressors have been the most challenging to cope with, 57% of students cited the difficulty of keeping up with coursework, and another 47% pointed to the “pressure to do well at college.”

In addition, a study published by Sallie Mae found that one third of students who did not complete college cited mental health concerns as one of their reasons for discontinuing their studies. These statistics indicate that what happens inside the classroom is inextricably tied to students’ personal, emotional, and mental state outside the classroom. Why, then, do we often assume that caring for students’ mental and emotional needs is primarily the responsibility of those outside of the classroom?

Students’ emotional needs are woven into the tapestry of their physical, social, and intellectual needs. Academic development is not only an intellectual pursuit, but incorporates the body, the mind, and emotions. Viewing these aspects of personhood as siloed has a detrimental effect on students, adding an unnecessary pressure to compartmentalize emotional needs in the face of high academic demands. Combatting the steep rise in mental health struggles amongst college students will require universities to equip their communities—including (and perhaps, especially) their faculty—with the tools for emotionally intelligent teaching and learning.

An emphasis on EQ is critical to equipping college communities to care for their students’ mental well being. In his seminal 1990 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Matters More Than IQ, Daniel Goleman notes that every person has both a rational and an emotional self, with one often hijacking the other. Emotional intelligence, he argues, is the ability to self-regulate one’s emotions, a process which begins with emotional literacy—the ability to identify and name the emotions one experiences and their causes.

The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence (YCEI) espouses a similar five-step approach to developing emotional intelligence, which they identify by the acronym RULER—recognizing emotions in oneself and others, understanding the causes and consequences of emotions, labeling emotions with a nuanced vocabulary, expressing emotions in accordance with cultural norms and social context, and regulating emotions with helpful strategies. While the YCEI primarily trains educators in K-12 schools to implement these tools with great success, many college students never received targeted social-emotional instruction in their formative years, leading to a dearth in emotional intelligence.

Dr. Marc Brackett, Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, writes; “when we can’t recognize, understand, or put into words what we feel, it’s impossible for us to do anything about it: to master our feelings — not to deny them but to accept them all, even embrace them — and learn to make our emotions work for us, not against us.” While emotional intelligence is just one facet of the vast and complex nexus of solutions needed to help college students recover from the pandemic and find health and support in the midst of mental health struggles, implementing more emotionally intelligent teaching could provide far-reaching, positive change for students and communities. By empowering students to develop their rational and emotional selves within the classroom as well as outside of it, universities can begin to address the college mental health crisis with a more holistic and multi-faceted approach.

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