American universities are abandoning students and facing mental health crises

This Thanksgiving, college students across the country are taking a temporary break from classes to celebrate at home with family and friends. But for students struggling with suicidal thoughts and other serious mental health issues, some may be told not to return to campus.

Colleges across America have largely dropped their COVID-19 restrictions, but the pressures students face today remain extraordinarily high. The American Psychological Association has labeled it a “crisis,” and estimates that more than 60 percent of college students are currently dealing with one or more mental health issues.

Congress has done little to provide funding to help understand the stresses and challenges faced by students. And many universities don’t provide students with the support they need to be healthy and resilient.

In 2019, students from high-performing schools across the country were added to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s (NASEM) “at risk” list. The reason: The pressure to compete at the top academic level resulted in higher rates of behavioral and mental health problems. Others on NASEM’s risk list included children living in poverty, foster families, and those with incarcerated parents.

That was before the pandemic. Since then, students have endured serious challenges, including social isolation and distance learning, which have disrupted their social and academic development. Campus life for college students may seem back to normal on the surface, but for many, the lingering effects of COVID-19 are still very raw and very real.

Statistics published by the University of Michigan rank suicide as the second leading cause of death for college students nationwide. About 1,100 suicides occur on college campuses each year. Nearly 40 percent of the university’s own students have ‘thought or considered it’. Such numbers put more pressure – and higher expectations – on universities to meet the mental health needs of their students.

Schools know this is a problem. Six consecutive surveys by the American Council on Education dating back to the start of the pandemic found student mental health to be a “pressing issue”. Last year, more than 70 percent of college presidents cited this as their top concern.

Yet some of the country’s most elite universities appear to be failing students in need of mental health care. A recent revelation from The Washington Post found that suicidal students at Yale University are “pressured to withdraw.” And those seeking readmission must reapply and waive their right to privacy by demonstrating that they received, at their own expense, appropriate mental health care during their absence as a condition of returning to campus.

The problem is not specific to Yale. Prior to the pandemic, the Ruderman Family Foundation discovered issues at a number of Ivy League universities regarding forced leave policies for students with mental illness. Everyone received a grade D+ or lower.

This policy betrays the students seeking care. Such a policy gives priority to legal protection over the well-being of students. Instead of expanding services and prioritizing mental health, some schools are compounding the problem by forcing students who come forward to leave their walls.

This year, Congress increased youth mental health care, but kept the higher education grant at a paltry $6.5 million. To empower America’s young adult population, we must destigmatize, not punish, care-seeking behavior. We also need a greater commitment from our elected leaders to fund accessible and substantive programs to address mental health awareness and prevention.

And that support must extend beyond university campuses. Young people everywhere have weathered COVID-19 and many need help, including in college and for whom studying is not an option.

At a time when student mental health needs in college are at an all-time high, schools are lagging behind. University presidents overwhelmingly agree that mental health is the number one issue facing their campuses. They – and Congress – need to step up and do more to be part of the solution.

Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy.

American universities are abandoning students and facing mental health crises

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