Mental Health: The Biggest Medical Challenge On College Campuses

College infirmaries and health facilities treat all sorts of problems on a daily basis, ranging from colds, flu and injuries, to more serious issues like meningitis and drug abuse.

College infirmaries and health facilities treat all sorts of problems on a daily basis, ranging from colds, flu and injuries, to more serious issues like meningitis and drug abuse.

The biggest challenge faced by college medical professionals, however, might surprise you: mental health.

Here’s one example of how big an issue it’s become. Over the last eight years, college enrollment nationwide has grown about 5%. During that same period, there’s been a 30% increase in the number of students seeking mental health services on campus.

Most collegiate health professionals say that providing those services is the biggest challenge they face today, and there are several reasons why it’s such an issue.

More and More Students Are Seeking Help

The long-standing stigma that prevented people from asking for help to deal with stress, anxiety and depression is slowly dying away. Today’s students who need counseling are more likely to seek appointments with mental health professionals than ever before.

At the same time, there are more effective treatments and medications for students diagnosed with mental health issues in grade, middle and high school. That means a large number who once wouldn’t have attended college at all are now “under control,” and are moving on to institutions of higher learning where they still need continuing care from therapists or professionals.

Meanwhile, reported depression rates among college students are on the rise. A recent study by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors found that more than a third of all students say they’ve experienced at least some depression during their college years, and it’s the number-one reason cited for dropping out of school.

Many experts believe that today’s faster-paced lifestyle and greater uncertainty about the future is at least partially to blame. Add to that more traditional issues like the pressure of studying and getting good grades, eating disorders and substance abuse (with binge drinking and the popularity of “study drugs” like Adderall playing major roles), and demand for counseling and mental health treatment continues to increase on college campuses.

Most Schools Lack an Effective Mental Health Infrastructure

Colleges can’t simply add a few nurses or a doctor to their existing infirmary or health service in order to provide the mental health treatment that their students increasingly require. It’s extremely expensive to build an effective mental health infrastructure that can service a quickly-growing group of students in need – and at almost all schools, money is hard to come by.

Public colleges and universities regularly face the reality of budget cutting, and most have had to increase tuitions and fees in recent years. Convincing administrators or lawmakers to fund new facilities and therapy staff is an uphill battle in most states. It’s not much easier for the majority of private institutions, either, where tuitions can approach or exceed $50,000 annually, and that’s still doesn’t bring in enough money for most to fund new initiatives.

How big an investment is required? Experts say a school should ideally have one mental health counselor on staff for every one-thousand students; at a school with tens of thousands of students that requires a huge influx of funding for mental health professionals and space to house their offices. Sadly, that’s beyond the means of many colleges just struggling to stay afloat.

Currently, waiting times for students to see on-campus therapists (for non-emergency issues) can run as long as four weeks, and some colleges are charging as much as $100 per therapist appointment. That may be necessary given their staffing and budgets, but it’s certainly not a long-term solution, nor does it help many students desperately in need of assistance.

The Future

It’s encouraging that, more than ever, college administrators and medical professionals are now recognizing the crucial need to improve the mental health services they provide. It’s now up to them, along with mental health advocacy groups and student activists, to pressure those who hold budgetary control to recognize and act on the problem. More students than ever need help, and it’s the responsibility of those in charge to make sure their students receive it.