Why Mental Health Matters For Colleges And Universities

September 18, 2022

Changing Higher Ed Podcast 116 With Dr. Drumm McNaughton And Dr. June Parks

Historically, college has always been a time for stress and anxiety – but in December of last year, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a rare public health advisory addressing the nation’s youth mental health crisis. In this episode, Dr. June Parks joins Drumm McNaughton for an important discussion about what’s happening on campuses throughout America and how the mental health crisis is affecting institutions of higher education.

The alarming rise in mental health issues among youth and young adults in America has been a persistent topic of concern since well before the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to 2020, many studies showed disturbing increases in rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and many other mental health issues. Members of the higher education community have long been acutely aware of these alarming trends, including the prevalence of school shootings, extreme cyberbullying, and the troubling effects of social media on young people’s psychological and emotional wellbeing.

Many new and unique challenges that didn’t exist for previous generations add to old stressors that have been around for decades. College has historically been a time for stress and anxiety for students – a formative where young people learn to be adults and handle their own problems, all while dealing with the stress of college applications, paying for tuition, taking on student debt, cramming for exams, and coping with the pressure to succeed.

The Pandemic’s Impact on Student Mental Health & Development

The arrival of COVID-19 in the United States profoundly changed the lives of young people at a critical time in their development. This, perhaps, is the factor that has had the most profound and detrimental impact on our youth. 

When COVID-19 hit the U.S. in early 2020, the closures of school campuses happened with no warning. Suddenly, students were completely cut off from their social and academic lives. Campus life ceased to exist, and the social lives of students went fully virtual as they, and everyone else, adapted to the new normal of “social distancing.” 

Celebrations, weddings, funerals, graduations, birthdays, and visits to sick or dying relatives were no longer possible. As the pandemic went on, many students expressed extreme anxiety about whether it would ever end. Not knowing when or if life would return to a state of normalcy, uncertainty and worry became the dominant feelings among many.

As Artem Ghoulish and Katherine Campbell note in a previous episode of this podcast, uncertainty, and anxiety are often exacerbated by the fact that graduating students are taking longer than previous generations to find a good job that sustains them financially and psychologically.

Trauma Affects Young Adults Differently

Parks, who specializes in youth trauma, emphasizes how trauma affects young people differently. We now know that the human brain does not fully develop until a person reaches their mid-twenties. For people who have experienced childhood trauma, the brain may not fully develop until much later. That means that college-aged students are functioning with brains that are still learning how to process and regulate thoughts and emotions.

The Young Adult Brain & The “Pop-off Moment”

Parks refers to a model of how the brain of a young person functions as explained by psychiatrist Dan Siegel. According to Siegel, we can think of the brain as having two floors or levels. The “upstairs” brain refers to the cortex, which is responsible for rational thought and regulating emotion, among many other things.

The “downstairs” brain refers to the limbic system, which houses our emotions. This part of the brain emits impulses and emotions, which the “upstairs” is responsible for managing and regulating. We can thank our “upstairs” brain for stopping us from saying things we later regret, lashing out, or losing our cool. When we experience trauma and adverse life events, our limbic system goes haywire in response, emitting continuous emotional impulses. Eventually, these impulses become too much for the cortex to regulate and manage properly.  

Parks refers to this loss of self-control as a pop-off moment. Psychiatrist Dan Siegel describes it as flipping the lid. Others may call it freaking out, losing it, or snapping. Most of us are familiar with the experience: we may experience it as losing our equilibrium and saying or doing something out of character. In extreme cases, the result can be dangerous or fatal.

Disproportionate Stressors on BIPOC Students

Parks points out that not all students face the same challenges regardless of whether they are part of the same generation.

Historically, societal challenges in America have tended to hurt marginalized communities the most, especially low-income and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities. Parks points out that this has not only been true of the pandemic but that our BIPOC communities also disproportionately suffer from other unique stressors.  

“Covid has impacted our BIPOC communities in ways that have been devastating. That adds additional challenges for those students, who are also navigating challenges regarding racism and things that are going on both in our society and in our institutions of higher learning. These are long-standing issues, but they are occurring now in unique ways that continue to create challenges.”

  • The financial stress of taking on student loan debt, combined with the rising cost of tuition, is much more intense for lower-income and BIPOC students.
  • As many lower-income students take on student loan debt to pay for rising tuitions, many face uncertainty about whether they’ll ever be able to repay what they’ve borrowed.
  • First-generation students are often under greater pressure from their parents to succeed, placing an extra burden on students to carry.

Generational Differences in Addressing Mental Health

Differences between generations often make it hard for younger people to relate to their elders, but research shows that younger generations are more willing to talk about mental health. Parks notes that each generation has paved the way for the awareness and openness of Gen Z – kids born between 1997 and 2012 – but that doesn’t mean we can assume they’ll reach out when they need help.

Baby boomers may be among the most reluctant to discuss matters of mental health, but they are generally much more open about these issues than their parents were. Likewise, Gen Xers tend to be more open than their boomer parents, and Millennials are even more likely to talk about mental health than Gen Xers. Current students, who represent Gen Z, are the most likely of all to be willing to talk about the mental health challenges they may face.

Parks points out that older generations faced their own unique sets of problems, challenges, and traumatic experiences. While older generations may not understand why young people today are struggling so much more, it isn’t helpful to compare generational challenges. Today’s youth face new and unique challenges in addition to many of the historical stressors that impacted prior generations. For example, older generations may not be carrying the same kind of student debt, and certainly have not dealt with cyberbullying, which often takes the form of photos and other private content being posted online, where it remains accessible to anyone indefinitely.

Despite generational differences, no generation is immune to mental health issues. When students suffer from mental health problems, it affects entire communities. Student wellness is deeply connected to both student success and the mental well-being and success of all adult professionals on campus. The overall wellness of campus communities is also fundamental to the success of institutions of higher learning.

Recognizing the Signs of Mental Health Crises in Student Populations

Mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, often present as clusters of symptoms, including:

  • Depressed mood
  • Fearfulness
  • Lack of concentration
  • Feelings of low self-worth
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Excessive sweating
  • Panic attacks that can mimic the symptoms of a heart attack

For Parks and other practitioners and clinicians, a student talking about self-harm or suicide is the biggest signal that causes them to spring into action– but symptoms can be recognized by administrators and advisors earlier. Students suffering from mental health problems exhibit certain identifiable behaviors and struggles:

  • Poor academic performance
  • Withdrawal from social connections
  • Difficulty functioning
  • Oversleeping or difficulty sleeping
  • Changes in personality
  • Feelings of hopelessness or constant worry

The Need For Resources & Long-Term Support

Once a student or adult reaches out to talk about their mental health, the initial intervention is only the beginning. Many people who struggle with mental health do not talk about it because acknowledging the problem means feeling the underlying pain.

Addressing trauma takes uncovering all that pain and finding its roots so that healing can begin. It’s a hard, long process that can’t be done alone. Without continued support, students may end up worse off than they began. Parks points to the need for extensive resources and long-term support. This goes for students as well as faculty, staff, and even school leaders.

Parks’ Concept of the Over-Stuffed Backpack

Regardless of age, both students and professionals are prone to buy into the false idea that we have endless bandwidth and capacity for trauma and pain. In fact, many of us tend to cope in unhealthy ways by pushing down uncomfortable feelings and bottling up difficult emotions. Parks’ concept of the “backpack” alludes to the ways that students in particular carry traumas with them even as they try to avoid facing them head-on.

Stuffing our pain and stress into this backpack creates an unbearable load to carry – and the backpack has a limited amount of space. When pushing problems away becomes our only way of coping, our backpack inevitably becomes too full to carry anymore. This is often when mental health issues lead to a so-called pop-off moment.

Parks explains that there are much better ways to carry our trauma in different ways. Instead of repressing our feelings and bottling them up inside, we can name them, tame them, and thereby de-shame them.  

Helping Students Find Healthy Ways to Cope

Parks believes that understanding trauma can help students and adults live with these feelings and experiences in healthier ways. Instead of pushing trauma down or stuffing it into the so-called backpack, trauma can be processed with the aid of a trained, experienced professional. Clinical psychologists like Parks use a variety of methods to help people face their traumas, including talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and many other tools and methodologies.

As students learn to manage their emotions, they may be able to compartmentalize without bottling up or shutting out their feelings.

Why Mental Health Matters for Colleges and Universities

There are undeniable connections between student wellness and student success, and mental health is a big part of wellness. Poor mental health is also strongly correlated with poor academic performance, decreased persistence, and increased dropout rates. Extreme pop-off moments can result in tragic events like suicide, school shootings, self-harm, and violent outbursts.

The mental well-being of the professionals who deal with these students is also connected, as is their ability to successfully perform their jobs. Institutions of higher learning disseminate all kinds of data on student success rates and other key markers, which affect enrollment, rankings, and ultimately, the very success of all colleges and universities. Without a healthy student body, no institution of higher education can truly succeed. In short, says Parks, “it’s all connected.”  

Three Takeaways for Higher Education Leaders and Boards

  • Mental health and well-being among students are connected to the overall well-being and success of schools and the professionals who work there. Students facing mental health crises are likely to exhibit poor academic performance, struggle to function, and even drop out of school altogether. There is a clear connection between mental health and student persistence and institutional success. Such a holistic crisis demands a holistic response.
  • While institutions admit students whom leaders deem to be college-ready, leaders must place an equal focus on whether their college is ready for those students. Creating robust systems of support for mental health is critical for improving the well-being of students, faculty, and staff alike. This requires enlisting professional, trained specialists who understand that treating mental health is a long-term process.
  • Leaders and administrators of higher education institutions are not immune to mental health challenges. Taking time off to recharge is not only important for their own well-being, but sets a crucial example for colleagues, professionals who work around them, and the students they serve.


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