University of Minnesota Alumni Association

About Campus

Anxiety on Campus

Universities across the country are confronting a spike in the number of students in need of mental health care. Here's what the U is doing to help.

Illustration by Nathalie Dion

In the movies, college looks like one long keg party interrupted only by occasional classes and assignments. But in real life, these years can be a challenging time for young adults. In addition to living away from home for the first time, students are trying to manage school, work, relationships, and the logistics of daily life on their own.

The University of Minnesota and other colleges and universities have long understood these challenges, which is why they survey students about their mental health. A little more than a decade ago, the otherwise unremarkable results of these surveys started showing increasing numbers of students reporting that they struggled with a mental health condition. Many had received a diagnosis before graduating from high school.

According to research based on a recent World Health Organization survey and published by the American Psychological Association in September 2018, roughly one third of first-year college students from 19 schools in eight industrialized countries reported symptoms consistent with at least one diagnosable mental health disorder. Those findings jibe with the University of Minnesota Twin Cities’ 2018 College Student Health Survey Report, in which 42.2 percent of students reported having been diagnosed with a mental health condition in their lifetime—compared with 32.7 percent in 2015. Forty-eight percent of female students reported a mental health condition compared with 32.7 percent of males. And anxiety and depression were the two most frequently reported diagnoses. 

What’s driving this increase isn’t well understood. But mental health professionals, including Matt Hanson (M.A. ’99, Ph.D. ’04), assistant director of the mental health clinic at Boynton Health, say a number of factors could be contributing to students’ unprecedented levels of depression and anxiety, in particular trauma associated with school shootings and increased incidences of peer suicides and sexual assaults. Add to that the excessive levels of stress associated with growing up in a culture that pushes younger and younger kids to focus on goals and accomplishments rather than play, as well as social media pressures and financial worries, and it becomes clearer why college students today are overwhelmed and asking for help in record numbers.

Campuses are scrambling to provide students with a broader array of supportive services. Hanson notes that while the uptick in mental health issues reported by U of M students may in part be due to students’ increasing willingness to openly discuss personal issues compared to previous generations, there is clearly cause for concern. “We know mental health has been a growing issue for years, but we didn’t predict the kind of acceleration we’ve seen in the last 10 to 15 years and we know there is a significant impact on students’ well-being,” he says.  

As a result, the U now considers mental health to be its number one public health issue, and campuswide efforts to provide direct service and prevention strategies to students are expanding rapidly. Some of those efforts include boosting staff who provide therapy, counseling, and other mental health services at Boynton Health. The clinic has also dramatically increased its group therapy programs, which are particularly helpful to students from underrepresented and marginalized communities—such as students of color, LGBTQIA+ students, and students from countries with vastly different cultures—because their experiences can be validated by peers who understand what they’re going through. 

Located on both the Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses, Student Counseling Services (SCS) has also expanded the number and types of groups they offer, says Vesna Hampel-Kozar, who became SCS’s new director in early March. They also provide a range of mental health services, including support that is more informal for students who want to stop in and talk about issues such as food insecurity, anxiety over a career choice, or a botched exam. “Students often spend a lot of time communicating via technology, which can contribute to feeling very isolated,” she says. “We work to connect students who can benefit from support with peers and resources that can help them both short- and long-term.”

Though not a substitute for traditional counseling, SCS’s new Let’s Talk program makes it easy for students to get free, confidential support during drop-in sessions at various locations on both campuses, including Coffman Union. Counselors, who may be academic advisors or other trained staff, meet with students on a first-come-first-served basis during specified hours, the idea being that some students will feel more comfortable talking openly in a less formal setting. Also operating in a nonclinical way is the U’s Care Program, which provides coordinated case management to students in need. Students, staff, faculty, and parents who are concerned about a student can contact the Care Program for support, resources, and referrals. And the U’s 24/7 crisis line is available to students via call or text (612-301-4673).

Those seeking more informal help for stress can try Learn to Live, a free, online therapy program that provides students with an initial evaluation and interactive lessons aimed at redirecting harmful thoughts and behavior patterns. Boynton Health also offers de-stress, a service where trained student helpers provide confidential peer-to-peer support during stress check-ins. 

While he is careful not to minimize the severity of the problem, Hanson emphasizes that the fact that so many students are asking for help these days is a positive sign. Studies show that most students who go to therapy only need three to five sessions to feel considerably better, and some only need one or two. “I’m always aware of how resilient students are whether they access the clinic or not,” he says. “In a lot of cases, what students who are struggling really need is a listening ear and some undivided attention so they can think through next steps and feel better. I’m glad they’re asking for that.”

Meleah Maynard (B.A. ’91) is a freelance writer and editor in Minneapolis. 

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