Mental Health On College Campuses – What To Consider When Choosing A College

College students’ mental health has been a simmering crisis on college campuses for years – well before the pandemic shuttered campuses last spring. According to a 2019 report from the American College Health Association that surveyed over 86,000 college students at 134 colleges and universities, over 40% of students reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function,” 65% had experienced “overwhelming anxiety,” and 13% seriously considered suicide.

Not surprisingly, researchers at Dartmouth College concluded in a 2020 study which tracked students’ mood and behavior via an app called StudentLife that the pandemic caused higher-than-normal stress among college students and increased rates of depression and anxiety. A 2020 Kaiser Family Foundation report showed that during the pandemic 26% of young adults aged 18-24 had suicidal thoughts.

Campus counseling centers, which were struggling to meet students’ needs even before the Covid, tried innovative ways to provide mental health services during the pandemic. Some offered zoom counseling sessions (although laws preventing mental health professionals from practicing across state lines prevented some students from having access to zoom counseling). Colleges also offered “wellness webinars” designed to help students become familiar with self-care and mindfulness practices. Campus counseling centers are preparing for increased demand when students return to in-person, on-campus college this fall.

When visiting colleges (virtually or in-person) and deciding which colleges to apply to, students and families may want to consider how effectively colleges are providing mental health support. Here are some things to consider:

  • How quickly can students be seen for an evaluation at the counseling center?
  • Does the counseling center offer individual counseling/therapy appointments?
  • What sort of therapeutic modalities (cognitive behavioral therapy, individual, group) do they offer
  • How quickly can students access individual counseling/therapy appointments?
  • Are there limits on the number of individual appointments provided to students?
  • If a student exceeds the allotted number of individual appointments, what happens?
  • Who provides the counseling/therapy sessions? What are their credentials and training? How many providers are on staff?
  • Is there a psychiatrist at the counseling center who can provide medication? If not, how do students get medication?
  • Is there a charge for counseling/therapy sessions or medication management sessions and if so, how much are they? Does the counseling center accept insurance?
  • Can students get “walk-in” appointments if urgent treatment is needed?
  • What happens if a student needs “after hours” care. For example, does the college have a 24-hour response line and/or access to an after-hours suicide prevention hotline, and if so, who staffs it?
  • Is there an option for virtual treatment?

In addition to questions about counseling services, students and parents may also want to consider whether the college has any peer-to-peer support services, whether the college offers wellness programs (on, for example, stress management or healthy lifestyle) and whether there is suicide prevention training for faculty and residential life staff (including student resident advisors).

College is about more than just academics – when looking for colleges that are good fits the focus needs to be on both academic and non-academic fit. Student mental health is part of that equation, too. Students need to find a campus where they will be happy and mentally healthy because that is foundational to their academic and non-academic success in college.