College Mental Health: Challenges & Strategies

College Mental Health: Challenges & Strategies

The Stress of College

Despite its depiction in movies and television as a carefree time of eating Ramen, watching football, and partying like there’s no tomorrow, college can be a time of immense stress for many students. For most young adults, it’s the first time they’ve lived on their own. This transition can be difficult, and students often find themselves struggling to manage the increased responsibility of paying bills, doing laundry, and even finding healthy meals on a regular basis. There may also be significant culture shock, if the student is moving across the country, or going from a suburban to an urban lifestyle. Living with a new, unknown roommate be a challenge, and many students will need to make a completely new set of friends.

Aside from the transition to adulthood and lack of parental involvement to help students identify priorities, coursework becomes more demanding, and professors are less forgiving. Certain mental illnesses (Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia-spectrum disorders) also tend to manifest during this time, partially due to the increased stress in the individual’s life contributing to the disease’s expression. According to NAMI, 73% of students reported experiencing a mental health crisis while in college. Heavy drinking and drug use are common on college campuses, and students may feel pressured to partake. Later in college, students can experience stress related to graduating, finding a job, and paying off large student loans.

The Current State of Affairs in College Counseling

The vast majority of non-profit colleges and universities have in-house counseling centers, often called “Counseling and Psychological Services” or CAPS centers. These are essentially outpatient clinics, typically not fully integrated with primary (physical) health centers, which have a staff of therapists (counselors, social workers, counseling psychologists, and perhaps psychiatrists and/or registered dietitians). The size of these clinics depend on the school’s size. Unfortunately, demand for mental health services on college campuses has outpaced most programs’ resources. The average ratio for students to professional staff is about 1700:1, and demand for mental health services on campus is increasing significantly faster than enrollment.

The mismatch between supply and demand for counselors’ time is clearly the largest hurdle that college counseling faces today. This typically means that therapists can only see students for a few sessions, and are forced to refer students who require continued treatment to community providers. Unfortunately, many students lack transportation to get to appointments off campus, or lack the funds to pay for private clinicians. Furthermore, if they are carried on their parents’ insurance, they may not have a robust network of providers in their school’s geographic area.

Stigma and access are also major problems for college counseling centers. According to a survey by NAMI, many students never seek treatment on campus, due to concerns about stigma, hours available for treatment, or even lack of awareness that resources are available. If students coping with mental health struggles don’t receive treatment, they are at risk of having lower GPAs, dropping out, or being unemployed.

So what can we do?

At Pacifica, we believe that technology can help. Mobile or web apps can provide educational and wellness tools to open up valuable in-person appointment spots for students with greater need. Such tools can help students on waitlists begin on their journey towards wellness, direct students to emergency resources on campus, and, by reinforcing in-person learning, help students get more out of each session.

One example of such a product is Pacifica. Pacifica is a mental health app that integrates principles from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and Mindfulness into a user-friendly and engaging platform. By teaching students lifelong wellness habits, such as how to take time to relax, to examine their thoughts, or track health habits like sleep and exercise. Anxiety, depression, and relationship problems are the most common presenting concerns for college students, and Pacifica’s suite of tools can teach students self-help tools to manage these difficulties. Additionally, the app’s supportive community of users helps break down stigma and make users more comfortable with the idea of seeking mental health treatment.