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The Campus Mental Health Crisis
By Keith Burton

Most college faculty members are aware of the growing problem of mental illness on our campuses, but in my experience this is rarely a “front-burner” type of topic that occupies the attention of faculty, administrators, or even students for long. Indeed, it seems that this long-neglected concern tends to receive serious attention primarily when tragedies occur that involve mental illness, as happened at Virginia Tech earlier this year. It is my view that this concern must not be allowed to fall to the “back-burner” again, and must be addressed comprehensively by state policy makers, the IBHE, college and university administrators, faculty, and students. I have recently had the opportunity to help promote this discussion in Illinois, and wish to share my perspectives on the role that faculty can play in furthering this discussion and in helping those students with mental illness.

But first, I’d like to provide some background on how I came to be involved with the campus mental health crisis and to summarize what I have learned so far. Earlier this year I volunteered to help author a position paper regarding the campus mental health crisis for the Illinois Board of Higher Education’s Faculty Advisory Council (FAC, on which I serve). That document, coauthored with the IBHE’s Student Advisory Committee, was intended to describe the extent of the crisis and to provide policy recommendations for the IBHE (it can be found at http://otel.uis.edu/ibhefac/). In addition, I have been serving as the FAC representative to the State of Illinois Campus Security Task Force. On that Task Force I am helping to assess the gaps in mental health service offerings on our college campuses. Below I will share with you what I have learned while working on these projects, and provide recommendations for how faculty can help.

The Magnitude of the Crisis

If you are skeptical of the existence of a mental health crisis, please consider the following. Several sources have suggested that our students are experiencing significant emotional distress, and that their distress is growing. Take, for example, the American College Health Association’s (ACHA) survey of college students, which features questions on mental and emotional health. Their most recently published data, based on over 94,000 students surveyed in the spring semester of 2006, indicate that 67% of women and 55% of men reported feeling hopeless at times over the last school year, that 47% of women and 38% of men reported feeling so depressed on at least one occasion that they could not function, and that 10% of women and 8% of men seriously considered suicide. Stress was cited as the single greatest impediment to academic progress by both genders, with depression and anxiety also ranked among the top 10 academic impediments.
Further, the International Association of Counseling Services conducts an annual survey of college counseling center directors. Their 2006 survey found that 92% of those directors believe that psychopathology severity has increased in recent years. They reported that 40% of their clients have severe psychopathology, with 8% being so severe they cannot continue their studies. They also noted a disturbing trend in that 25% of student clients were on psychiatric medications (up from 20% in 2003, 17% in 2000 and 9% in 1994). The college counseling center directors clearly feel that mental illness is on the rise.
Their perceptions have been supported by a recent study conducted by the counseling center at Kansas State University. They found that, over a period of 13 years, their student body showed dramatic increases in the rates of many forms of mental illness, including depression, bipolar disorder, substance abuse, and anxiety disorders.

Why Is This Happening?

The causes of the campus mental health crisis likely include a wide variety of factors. Part of the explanation for this rise is probably due to the fact that rates of mental illness at colleges and universities were held artificially low for a long time. It was once the case that colleges and universities were shielded from the prevalence of mental illness due to the simple fact that many who suffered from mental illness would go their entire lives without proper assessment or treatment, severely limiting their ability to thrive academically. There have since been considerable advances in early detection and treatment of mental illness, and coupling this phenomenon with the increasing emphasis on accessibility of higher education has resulted in dramatically improved opportunities for the mentally ill to maximize their academic potential. This is, of course, a wonderful change. But not all of the reasons for this rise in mental illness are so happy.

A variety of scholars have suggested similar arrays of causal factors behind the mental health crisis. Dr. Richard Kadison, chief of mental health at Harvard University Health Services, has provided a summary of these in his book College of the Overwhelmed. These causes include the massive social and academic upheaval that accompanies the transition to college, the rapidly increasing financial burden of attending college, increased exposure to cultural diversity (which creates positive overall growth via a frequently stressful process), coming from broken families, poorly developed familial bonds due to excessive high school extracurricular activity involvement, rising substance abuse, excessive focus on grades, the downplaying of symptom severity by both the student and the student’s family, and academic preparedness. Clearly, many of these causal factors cannot be directly addressed by policy makers, institutions, or individual faculty, but some can be.

What Can We Do?

Faculty members are directly impacted by the rise in mental illness on our campuses. As such we owe it to ourselves to be well-equipped to identify and address mental illness when it appears in our classrooms, and to further the broader mental illness policy discussions amongst college administrators, the IBHE, and state legislators. Toward that end, I recommend that faculty consider the following:
1)      Get educated: Be proactive! Become familiar with the major types of mental illnesses that our students are likely to bring to campus or to develop while here. Spotting the signs and symptoms of mental illness early, and making appropriate referrals, can help to avert a protracted disaster in the student’s life (and potentially considerable distress for their instructors). Thus, if your counseling center offers workshops on mental illness, avail yourself of them. If they don’t offer such workshops, ask them if they would consider doing so. In my dealings with counseling center directors I have gotten the clear impression that most of them would be very receptive to having faculty helping as “eyes and ears” for mental illness detection on campus.
2)      Become a knowledgeable friend of your counseling center: it has been my experience that many faculty members have a limited understanding of the capabilities of their campus’ counseling center. If you have not already done so, familiarize yourself with the services they offer and stand ready to inform your students of these services. It is important to keep in mind that counseling centers usually have multiple missions. Many centers are charged with addressing the broad array of academic, career, and mental health counseling, and their resources are limited. Thus, knowing what centers can and cannot offer can also help faculty to identify counseling center needs (especially with regard to mental health treatment), and allow for meaningful advocacy on their behalf. For example, many counseling centers do not have trained substance abuse counselors or ready access to psychiatric services. These are both areas of increasing demand, and it would be a boon to many students if we assisted counseling centers however we can in obtaining such services. We can remind those in administration, for example, that good counseling services can help to improve student retention.
3)      Advocate for YOUR STUDENTS’ pocketbooks: One of the oft-cited sources of distress for students is the rapidly growing financial burden of obtaining higher education. Many students feel that they must work full-time while attending classes full-time, or they must take on enormous debt to finance their education. Reductions in funding for higher education have been a major contributor to this phenomenon, and consequently our institutions have had to rely on tuition increases to pay for basic services and long-neglected needs. Thus it seems sensible to advocate for improved support from the state, provided that we do so carefully: as we all know, faculty who ask for more resources from the state are often perceived as self-serving and end up being ignored by policy makers. When we advocate for improved funding for higher education in the context of mental illness, we must make clear that doing so will be a benefit first and foremost for students. We should be careful to emphasize that increased financial support is needed to fully staff counseling centers, and to reduce the crushing and distress-inducing debt burden many students carry. In my view, faculty asking for resources that will not directly benefit them will be more likely to be heard.
4)      Promote social support for students: Individuals who feel that they have insufficient support from friends, family members, and others to cope with their stressors are at a significantly increased risk for mental illness when stressors arise. One of the difficulties students encounter when transitioning to college is a massive shift in their social landscape, and this often entails a distancing between the student and their established support network. Thus, whenever possible faculty should use this knowledge to inform their colleagues or policy-making administrators. For example, there is a growing trend to build dormitories with single-occupancy rooms. Students want them as they value privacy. However there is a hidden cost to offering these kinds of rooms: students lose out on a built-in source of social support in a roommate. Likewise, integrative experiences for first-year and transfer students could help them to establish a protective social support network.
5)      Get involved with teacher education reform: One need look no further than the enormous rise in remedial classes offered at our colleges to see that many students are not being adequately prepared for college-level work by their high schools. This, too, can be a significant source of distress to students who arrive on our campuses with a history of perfect grades in high school and the erroneous belief that their academic skills are sufficient for college work. The FAC has previously written about the need for changes in teacher preparation (see http://otel.uis.edu/ibhefac/ for that paper), which will hopefully reduce this source of distress. Advocating for this kind of change, and for the development of such entities as the new P-20 Council, will help in this regard.


The campus mental health crisis is underway, and the overall picture of student mental health looks bleak and worsening. Thus, we must act to alleviate the suffering of our students, to reduce the distress we experience when faced with mentally ill students, and to improve the learning environment for all. I have outlined a handful of steps faculty members can take to improve their abilities to navigate this situation, and described policies for which we can advocate to improve student conditions. I am under no illusions, however, that I have provided an exhaustive list of suggestions. My intention here is to begin a discussion, and provide my ideas as a starting point for discussion. There are doubtless many other things faculty could be doing to address the campus mental health crisis, and I invite all who read this to join with this discussion and exchange ideas that will lead us to an improved, comprehensive approach to addressing this crisis.

Keith Burton is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Springfield and a Licensed Clinical Psychologist. He can be reached at kburt2@uis.edu.