Mental Health on Campus

Young woman with glasses looks up between a blur of students passing by
Mental HealthStudent Success
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I met my first suicidal student while serving as a 23-year-old instructor at a local community college. The student was calm and matter-of-fact. She saw no alternatives other than taking her life. What was her dilemma? She had just found out that Stanford had offered her a full scholarship. For many of us, that would be celebration time, but for a first-gen student worried about a growing chasm between herself and the family she adored, it was untenable. Also untenable was the option of not going to Stanford, as her family was so very proud of her. Like many suicidal individuals, she experienced a type of tunnel vision that led her to see only one option—the exit sign. Fortunately, she did not act, but not because of anything brilliant that I said or did. I felt woefully unprepared to deal with this situation, despite my background in Psychology.

Mental health’s effects on academic success

I’m not alone in having this type of experience. Many professors from diverse disciplines face students today whose mental health is interfering with their academic success and general well-being. The 2022-2023 Healthy Minds Survey, with over 76,000 participants attending college, found that 41% were clinically depressed, 36% were anxious, and 29% had taken psychiatric medications in the previous year. Fourteen percent reported suicidal thoughts, two percent attempted suicide, and an astonishing 29% experienced non-suicidal self-injury.

Figuring out why the numbers of troubled students is increasing is keeping small armies of psychological researchers busy. Some argue that the numbers reflect a reduction of stigma rather than any absolute increase in poor mental health, but steep rises in suicide and suicidal ideation argue against that. Universities must comply with ADA, and the end result is that more students with existing diagnoses of psychological disorders are enrolling. We will not fully understand the impact of COVID-19 disruptions in the lives of children and adolescents for many years. Social media are often portrayed as the villain, but conducting research to support this hypothesis is tricky. Are individuals vulnerable to mental health problems more likely to use social media or respond differently to social media? Or is social media use causing problems? Or both?

Regardless of your favorite hypothesis, it is worth noting that the developmental stage of our traditional 18-23 year old students is a tough one under the best of circumstances. Decisions and actions during this period of emerging adulthood carry high stakes and have long-term implications. Although college students have more mental health problems than their peers who do not attend college, the difference is slight, and might be affected by superior knowledge of disorders and access to care. There is also the issue of loneliness, not a diagnosable condition in its own right, but certainly a contributing factor to some. College students are one of the loneliest demographic groups on the planet.

Understanding causal factors is a start, but faculty still need to know what to do. If I had a time machine, what would my current self tell my 23-year-old self about how to handle my troubled student?

Be proactive

We can start by being proactive, rather than waiting for the student to contact us. Faculty develop an excellent “spidey sense” for detecting student problems. If you think something is off, it probably is. Does a student suddenly stop coming to class? Do they stop submitting work? One of the key signals that something is going wrong is a drop in self-care. Whether we are meticulous or sloppy in our personal appearance, a sudden change for the worse is cause for concern. Self-care is a reflection of our own sense of self-worth.

Reach out

When we see any or all of these things at work, we can reach out, express our concern, and ask if the student is okay. Sometimes, the student will just say “I’m fine,” even when they’re not, but most will appreciate your making the effort. If the student does admit to being in distress, we can ensure that they are aware of the services available to them. I have, on occasion, even walked students down to the campus counseling center and stayed until they are handed off to a professional (I am a research psychologist, not a clinician).

Acknowledge and reassure

We are constantly bombarded with negative news of world events, and this information can be especially upsetting to students. Those of us who are a bit older have seen many “end of days” scenarios and perhaps we have built up some immunity and coping mechanisms. The world has never been safe nor fair, nor is it likely to become so any time soon, but the idealism of youth makes this intolerable. While I’m not a fan of holding forth in class about personal opinions, at least acknowledging events that are distracting to students can be reassuring to them. Feeling understood reduces stress and alienation, even in the worst of circumstances.

Make a plan of action

In the case of suicidal or homicidal students, we move from yellow alert to red in a series of stages. Many people who commit suicide telegraph their intent to others first. Any combination of depression, hopeless thoughts about the future, denigration of self-worth, and giving away prized possessions should not be ignored. This is an individual who needs counseling, and quickly. Twenty-four hour helplines are available if counseling centers are closed. Any mention of a plan, especially including a specific method, moves our dial a step up in severity.

In California, reaching out to county mental health agencies would be the norm in these instances, but a campus should let faculty know how to respond in their location. A plan coupled with having the means to carry out the plan right at hand is a 9-1-1 call or a trip to the local Emergency Room. The person should not be left alone under any circumstances. If these situations are combined with alcohol, extra caution is warranted. Alcohol reduces inhibition and boosts impulsivity, leading to between one quarter and one third of suicides taking place when a person is under the influence.

Our natural tendency is to be slow to identify a situation as an emergency. It would be embarrassing if we misunderstood the student, right? But failing to act could cost a life, so when in any doubt whatsoever, get moving.

Taking care of our own mental health

At this point, you might be feeling overwhelmed. Most professors didn’t sign up to be mental health professionals. We have complicated lives and families and problems of our own. We take our students’ challenges home, which makes us susceptible to compassion fatigue. To avoid becoming distressed ourselves, we need to practice our own strategies for well-being, including reaching out to our colleagues. As part of our own educational experiences, we put the hardest workers on a pedestal, and often do not give ourselves permission to take time off to recover. We need to remind ourselves of the many times when going the extra mile really made a life-changing difference to a student. That’s what attracted us to the profession and that’s what keeps us going.


Professor and Cengage Author Laura Freberg with her dog


Written by Laura Freberg, Professor of Psychology at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and author of textbooks in Introductory Psychology, Behavioral Neuroscience and Research Methods.




With an unprecedented surge of mental health challenges affecting college students, what else can you do to help? Professor Freberg leads the discussion in the “Mental Health On Campus: What Can Faculty Do?” webinar. Find the session in our Cengage Computing Experience series.