MentalHealth.gov defines mental health as our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act and helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.
Mental health is essential at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood. Many factors contribute to mental health problems, including biological factors, life experiences, and family history of mental health problems.
And now, more than two years after the pandemic, we're seeing the longer-term effects of social isolation and school closures on students’ mental health.
While data surfaces about the mental health of younger children, there's little on mental health among college attendees. Therefore, there has been significantly less focus on how universities and colleges can meet their students' mental health needs.
Poor Mental Health Affects Students' Academic Performance
Mental health problems can affect many areas of students’ lives, reducing their quality of life, academic achievement, physical health, and satisfaction with the overall college experience.
Strings of absences, falling grades, and eventual dropouts plague many students suffering from mental health disorders. These issues can have long-term consequences on students’ future employment and earning potential.
Some research suggests that depression is associated with lower grade point averages and being twice as likely to drop out of school. And having both depression and anxiety can increase this association. Students with mental health challenges may also seem less interested in their course or be unwilling to engage in discussions.
Also, poor mental health may interrupt students' concentration in the classroom, thoughts about progression or long-term academic goals, and enthusiasm about university life.
“You can imagine that a student's standing—first-year, sophomore, junior, or senior—is also important to consider. Poor mental health management practices in one's freshman year, if not treated or corrected, can notably impact their performance in later years,” Emily Campion, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Management & Entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa, told Talent Select AI in a recent interview.
Campion noted that at least one study has found that the impact of mental health challenges is less in one's freshman year than in subsequent years, suggesting that the continuance of maladaptive behavioral responses to these challenges may be more difficult to treat and manage later on.
Notably, many college students report that mental health difficulties interfere with their studies. A 2015 American College Health Association survey found that college students identified stress (30%), anxiety (22%), sleep difficulties (20%), and depression (14%) as negatively impacting their academic performance within the last 12 months.
How Higher Education Supports Students' Mental Health
Mental health and well-being issues on university campuses are on the rise. In just six years, student anxiety in higher education institutions jumped from 17% to 31%, according to a Healthy Minds Network and the American College Health Association study.
While higher education leaders have put measures in place to help stem the tide, they must do more. The American Council on Education reports that 70% of university presidents say their most pressing issue is student mental health.
College students experience a sudden excess of freedom that may come as a shock. They lose much of the social network they relied upon in high school. This pressure alone can lead some students to anxiety or depression.
First and foremost, colleges and universities should raise awareness and address the mental health stigma by encouraging students to empathize with each other, share similar experiences, and communicate available mental health resources.
Higher institutions can carry out this vision by mandating life skills classes as part of the curriculum. These programs can teach concepts such as meal planning, school-life balance, scheduling, and getting sufficient exercise.
Additionally, classes can teach young adults to budget their money wisely and avoid debt. Students feel more in control when they feel supported and learn sustainable habits.
But as mental health becomes more normalized, students who need help may feel reluctant or unsure how to seek it out. Therefore, higher education institutions should add more trained counselors and establish peer support groups for students with various mental health needs.
Organizations like NASPA recommend upstream solutions, including teaching programs focussed on resiliency, stress management, and other behavioral challenges. And hiring speakers who have overcome similar difficulties to inspire students to persevere through challenging moments may also be beneficial.
Overall, mental health support staff and faculty should empower students with well-being checks. Something as simple as quizzes emailed to students can help the institution determine students’ stress levels while learning what works, what doesn't, and what the way forward should look like.
“It is important for students to recognize the difference between what we might call stress, which is a natural outcome of challenging assignments, and stress that puts undue strain on a person's ability to perform,” Campion stated.
“For many, simple acts of success—completing an assignment on time, studying for an exam and seeing an increase in one's grade, attending office hours to ask questions—can have a meaningful and positive impact on their perceived ability in the classroom and improve their well-being overall,” she concluded.