The current state of college mental health and what we can do about it

Abelson, S., Lipson, S. K., & Eisenberg, D. (2022). Mental health in college populations: A multidisciplinary review of what works, evidence gaps, and paths forward. In L. W. Perna (Ed.), Higher education: Handbook of Theory and Research. Springer Cham.

Summarized by Megyn Jasman

Notes of Interest: 

  • Colleges and universities are concerned with the well-being of their students.
  • Student mental health is important, particularly since it affects all aspects of student life, including emotional and physical well-being, health, and performance (e.g., academic).
  • Student anxiety and depression have been steadily increasing over the past decade.
  • Arabs/Americans, LGBTQ+ individuals, cisgender females, and people with lower SES experience more struggles than others.
  • There are also large disparities with who accesses mental health resources, especially for minority populations who endorse concerns about cost.
  • Peers are an important source of influence and support.
    • According to the authors, “Peers may be ‘the single most potent source of influence on student affective and cognitive growth and development during college (Astin, 1993, 398; Kuh, 1993; Whitt et al., 1999).”
  • More research is needed to understand how such interventions can be more scalable.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

The mental health of students has become one of the top concerns in higher education. The number of students reporting distress and seeking services has dramatically increased, and colleges and universities are struggling to address these challenges. A rich and growing body of research documents the scope of the problem and potential interventions to address it, but this literature is scattered across a variety of academic fields. This chapter aims to bring coherence to this large volume of information through a detailed review of programs, services, practices, and policies that influence student mental health. The review is organized around a socioecological framework, considering interventions at the individual, interpersonal, community, institutional, and public policy levels. It highlights strengths, weaknesses, and gaps in the evidence. The chapter concludes with recommendations for enhancing how research and data can inform practice moving forward. A more evidence-informed approach is needed to address the growing challenges of student mental health in higher education.

Implications (Reprinted from the Conclusion)

Mental health problems among college students are prevalent, increasing, and inequitably burdensome. There is a rich, dispersed evidence base indicating important opportunities for colleges and universities to intervene at every level of the socioecological model. And yet, there is also significant need to improve the evidence base. Enhancing the evidence base and its use is in the best interest of students, institutions, and society. Doing so with all students in mind is essential for reducing inequities in mental health. The task is urgent due to long-standing rising trends in symptoms and service use and the likelihood of further worsening as we emerge from the global pandemic (Ettman et al., 2020; Galea et al., 2020; Liu et al., 2020; Rudenstine et al., 2021). Given the link between mental health and academics, identifying and implementing effective interventions to enhance mental health may be an underutilized strategy for eliminating thus far intractable academic inequities (Espinosa et al., 2019). In conclusion, better addressing student mental health in higher education is an area ripe for research, innovation, and action. A more strategic, evidence-informed approach is needed to make the best use of limited funding.

To access this chapter, click here.