Mental Health in American Schools: A Hidden Crisis


Would it be an exaggeration to claim that there is currently a mental health crisis impacting America’s late adolescence and young adults? With a simple Google search, one can uncover millions of articles about mental health issues affecting the youth of America. In recent decades, evidence has shown an increase in demand for mental health services, as well as an increase in symptom severity for the college population. Due to the combination of the growing number of college students, seemingly increasing distress among students, and strained resources on campuses to meet student’s needs, many, including major media outlets, psychologists, and counseling centers have dubbed this as a “mental health crisis” (Xiao et al., 2017). Based off of the fact that statistics for mental health issues within this population are incrementally growing, it is extremely important for campuses as a whole to implement a plan of change and tackle this ever-growing issue. The purpose of this research paper is to dive deep into this mental health crisis and bring about awareness, outline possible causation and the consequences, discuss current campus services, and lastly, highlight interdisciplinary interventions that campuses should invest in to help struggling college students.

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Simon

Clinical data collected over the span of five academic years (2010-2015), showed an increase in trends for self-reported distress in generalized anxiety, depression, social anxiety, family distress, and academic distress (Xiao et al., 2017). This data was collected by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, a research network composed of more than 340 university college counseling centers with the goal of tracking such data to bring about awareness for college populations. Evidence through this research network has suggested that student’s presenting issues in counseling centers are more complex and severe than they were two decades ago. After all, in 2014, first-year college students reported the lowest level of emotional health in twenty-five years (Locke, Wallace, & Brunner, 2016). These facts bring about the question of possible causation for this increase in mental health issues, but sadly, there is not a simple answer. It is a well-known fact that today’s traditional college students are quite ethnically diverse, lead protected and structured lives, emphasize achievement and accomplishment, are skilled in multitasking, place high value on peer relationships, and have difficulty learning from failure (Locke et al., 2016). In addition, they show a greater likelihood of acceptance to individual differences, are more technologically inclined as well as dependent. These are all general characteristics, some positive and negative, of the current college population. Some of these more negative attributes can be quite influential towards the development of stress leading to the creation of mental health issues, although, they are definitely not the only influences for causation. Overall, there are many factors that can impact one’s mental health on an individual, interpersonal, and institutional level.

Causation: The Individual Level
CC BY-NC 2.0 Matt Harris

Starting off on the individual level, this is aimed at student’s physical, cognitive, and emotional health, and includes intrapersonal functioning, influences, and capacities, such as that of self-esteem and coping abilities. In addition, the individual level takes into account one’s ethnicity and gender identification, which can be influential factors towards the development of mental health issues. The individual level largely depends on one’s own perception of themselves as well as their ability to adapt and/or adjust to situations. The individual level is made up of one’s own personal strengths and weaknesses that influence the amount of stress one can endure and ultimately how they handle that stress. The individual level also takes into account one’s family dynamic and childhood, considering aspects such as that of permissive parenting and trauma. Survey data from the National Collegiate Health Assessment (NCHA) by the American College Health Association (ACHA), has reported that forty-five percent of the general population of college students has reported that some aspect of their lives has been traumatic or very difficult to handle (Locke et al., 2016). Going through any sort of traumatic experience can have a direct impact on the development of mental health disorders and can lead to overwhelming anxiety, anger, feelings of hopelessness, depression, low self-esteem, and an overall difficulty to function normally.

Permissive parenting in itself is a lax style of parenting where the caregivers of the child are very loving and supportive, but act more like a friend with little to no guidelines than as an authoritative figure. For the sake of one’s mental health, it is of course necessary for parents to be lenient with their children and support their desires and/or dreams, but with zero expectations, permissive parenting can be quite harmful to a college student’s adaptation ability. Transitioning from the expectations of the lenient home environment to those of a college environment can be quite difficult for many college students. Ultimately, the parenting behaviors associated with permissiveness, such as enabling, overindulgence, and over responsiveness to a child’s needs can hinder a students’ preparedness for the independence expected in a college atmosphere (Barton & Hirsch, 2016). This style was first introduced as a way to increase children’s self-worth and self-esteem, although, it backfired and created student’s with characteristics of entitlement. Having the sense of academic entitlement refers to students’ belief that they are owed more in the academic setting than is proportionate with the effort that they put forth (Barton & Hirsch, 2016). This belief can cause issues between student’s and academic officials, leading to increased stress and the inability to cope with the reality of expectations set forth on college campuses.

Causation: The Interpersonal Level
A portion of my own personal social network: Tau Omega

The interpersonal level takes into consideration how well students are able to function in the social environment, including their involvement in social activities and their satisfaction with various social and academic networks. Research has shown that interpersonal and social adjustment are fundamental for psychosocial development and for dealing with the challenges associated with pursuing higher education, particularly for students who deal with transition and adjustment difficulties, isolation, loneliness, and have low levels of social support (Byrd & McKinney, 2012). Attending and adjusting to college is difficult for nearly everyone, between the increased academic demands, forming new social relationships, and making lifestyle changes along with different housing arrangements, the stress can be sometimes unbearable. Therefore, one’s coping mechanisms and ability to form new positive social networks is a major key to preventing the development of mental health issues. After all, negative social networks can lead to alcohol and substance use which in return may have a negative impact on a student’s mental health and academic performance. In addition, the quality of relationships with peers also has been associated with psychiatric symptoms, there has been reported links between closeness in relationships and mental health outcomes (Mason, Zaharakis, Benotsch, 2014). Therefore, who students choose to surround themselves with is an influential factor towards the mental health of the college population.

Causation: The Institutional Level
CC BY 2.0 John Jones

The third level of causation is institutional, this refers to the academic setting, including requirements, curriculum between areas of study, teaching practices, and the overall institutional vibes. Stress levels may differ between areas of study, but overall, chronic stressors related to academic performance, curriculum requirements, and institutional politics can negatively impact a student’s mental health. A survey of undergraduate students revealed that 77.6% and 10.4% of students experiences moderate or serious stress from their academic requirements, such as that of studying, taking examinations, test results, and their overall workload (Byrd & McKinney, 2012). In addition to general workload, other factors such as the supportiveness of academic faculty and the overall perception of how a university is being run can contribute to a student’s stress leading to mental health issues. Another factor that has an impact on college student’s mental health and relates to both the institutional and individual level, is the amount of sleep an individual gets. College students are one of the top at-risk groups for chronic sleep loss and poor sleep quality due to physiological, social, and contextual factors, which can yield damaging effects on one’s health (Peach, Gaultney, Gray, 2015). Whether it is due to procrastination and poor time management, or unreasonable academic and social demands, lack of sleep is one of the influential factors associated with mental health issues in the college population.

The Consequences
CC BY 2.0 Benjamin Watson

As can be seen by the three levels, individual, interpersonal, and institutional, there are a variety of present day factors that are influencing the mental health of the college aged population, and with no interventions put in place, the result is a mental health crisis. This rise in mental health issues among this age group perpetuates negative outcomes such as that of academic failure or poor academic performance, engagement in risky behavior, criminogenic thinking, and the possibility of suicidal ideation or attempts. To be more specific, approximately 70% of students who presented to university counseling centers for mental health problems reported a negative impact on their academic performance, and approximately 20% were considering dropping out because of these problems (Mandracchia & Pendleton, 2015). In addition to poor academic performance, traditional college students also engage in disproportionately high levels of maladaptive behaviors, such as experimentation with psychoactive substances. According to the Core Alcohol and Drug Survey, nearly a third of all college students reported having used marijuana in the past year and over 10% reported participation in some other illegal substance in the past year (Mandracchia & Pendleton, 2015). Although, even more pervasive than drug use is the problematic consumption of alcohol. The same survey reported that almost 90% of students believed that their peers used alcohol at least once per week, and 70% came forward reporting having used alcohol within the past month with binge drinking activity (Mandracchia & Pendleton, 2015). Maladaptive behaviors such as these can have extreme consequences on one’s life, including addiction, injury to one’s health, poor academic performance and/or dropping out, and much more.

CC BY 2.0 Kyle Sullivan

Another problematic behavior that is seen in the college population with a correlation to mental health issues is academic misconduct. Academic misconduct includes deviant behavior such as that of cheating on exams, papers, projects, and other course assignments, duplicate submissions of work, fabrication, bribery, and any other sort of academic dishonesty. Two independent studies conducted nearly two decades apart from each other suggest that an overwhelming majority of undergraduates, over 80%, engage in some form of academic misconduct (Mandracchia & Pendleton, 2015). Some college students even engage in more severe rule-breaking behavior surrounding criminogenic thinking. This type of thinking refers to individuals who participate in criminal behavior, at the extreme levels it perpetuates criminal behavior while on the lower end it promotes noncriminal, but irresponsible behavior. One study found that almost all college students have committed a crime at some point in their life, when asked about the most severe crime they have committed, 23.9% reported a minor infraction, 32.5% reported a property crime, 20.3% reported a violent crime, and 17.8% reported a drug-related crime (Mandaracchia & Pendleton, 2015). In order to avoid these consequences of mental health issues within the college population it is important to put into place interventions which leads me into the next discussion: what is being done to combat this mental health crisis on the university level?

What is being done?
Hagedorn Library – Michael L. Fischler Counseling Center – Photo by Plymouth State University

As mental health issues increase in adolescents and linger into the college population, it is going to fall back onto universities to provide resources and services that take into consideration specific needs to best accommodate the students. The largest resource, and sometimes the only one, offered on college campuses for mental health assistance is counseling centers. The extent of services and treatment offered highly depends on the university. Looking at Plymouth State University, the Michael L. Fischler Counseling Center has supportive staff that are knowledgeable on a variety of psychological issues and offers a substantial amount of services and treatment. To be more specific, they offer individual and group counseling, couple counseling, crisis intervention, consultation, psychoeducation, and referrals to alcohol and other drug programs. In addition to these services, the counseling center is active in outreach, has a library dedicated to helpful materials, offers opportunities to interested faculty and students to get involved with mental health awareness and wellness on campus, and conducts research in order to stay relevant and makes improvements to meet the needs of students. Clearly, Plymouth State University has kept up to date in national and local trends in order to offer up the best care possible to students in regards to their mental health needs. Although, not all universities have done the same, despite the increasing demand for services many college counseling centers have not seen an equivalent increase in resources.

In a 2007 survey, professional members from the American College Counseling Association were asked about the increasing demand for services, and only 4% replied that caseload was not a problem (Xiao et al., 2017). For the other 96% questioned, the most common response was that the counseling centers needed more employees. Due to the strain in resources, counseling centers have often needed to adopt strategies to cope with the pressure and overflow of students, such as waitlists, implementing clinic wide session limits, or referring students to external sites not affiliated with the university. The ultimate result of universities not expanding their services is students not getting the assistance they need, in one survey, 90% of counseling center directors stated concerns in regards to clients not receiving treatment when they needed it the most (Xiao et al., 2017). These statistics highlight the need for more thoughtful and better university administrative decision making, flexible management within the counseling centers, and overall willingness to make adjustments as needed to meet the changing mental health demands of the college population.

Interdisciplinary Interventions & Suggestions
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Fiona Moore

Effective counseling centers must encompass a variety of models in order to meet the needs of a wide range of psychological issues that students present with. These models need to adopt an interdisciplinary approach and address stronger clinical services, take into consideration educational awareness, community improvement, early interventions, and preventative measures. Starting off with clinical services, universities need to recognize that the demand for mental health resources on campuses are increasing much faster than institutional enrollment and there are more individuals than previous years who are at risk. Universities need to explore funding to expand mental health services for students and keep track of national trends and suggestions in order to manage risk factors and encourage student success. Next, providing educational awareness on all aspects of mental health issues to students and faculty throughout the entirety of the campus population in order to create a culture of understanding is vital. Educational awareness includes aspects such as awareness of consequences of treatment avoidance, general awareness on mental health conditions and corresponding treatments, coping strategies, recovery maintenance, and treatment availability. Elizabeth M

Third, community improvements regarding awareness and advocacy need to be put in place. Community improvements include on-campus and off-campus partnerships to boost mental health initiatives, such as the creation of student-run mental health organizations advocating for and supporting services. These partnerships are essential to increase positive discussions surrounding mental health issues and help eliminate stigma throughout the community. In addition, collaborating with others in the community will allow the university to assess intentions of individuals in terms of volunteering and promoting overall communal wellness. Lastly, universities need to implement targeted interventions and preventative techniques for individuals who are at risk of mental health issues or a mental health crisis in order to decrease the chances of many of the consequences discussed in this paper. Overall, implementing a strategic, interdisciplinary model for mental health services offered on university campuses is essential to combat this present day mental health crisis.

CC BY 2.0 Paul Bowman

As I conclude this research, I feel a bit overwhelmed about all of the statistics and data that I uncovered in regards to mental health issues within the college population. Although, I am not entirely surprised, after all, I am a college student myself and over the years I have personally witnessed this increase in mental health issues among my peers. In addition, I have taken a substantial amount of mental health courses and discussed this topic quite a few times throughout my academic career. Despite having a decent amount of background knowledge on the topic I have never dived this deep, and have now come to realize that as a society we have a lot more work to do than expected. As a patient advocacy major and aspiring social worker, I have high hopes that I will be able to utilize the knowledge I have gained to assist clients in this age group and promote positive mental health. Lastly, I hope this research sheds some light on the incrementally growing mental health crisis in America and that those who read this are also able to utilize the information to spread awareness and help make the world more mental health positive.



Xiao, H., Carney, D. M., Youn, S. J., Janis, R. A., Castonguay, L. G., Hayes, J. A., & Locke, B. D. (2017). Are we in crisis? National mental health and treatment trends in college counseling centers. Psychological Services, 14(4), 407-415.

2 Comments on “Mental Health in American Schools: A Hidden Crisis”

  1. Makenna, this looks wonderful, your work is thorough and thoughtful. Imbed your hyperlinks where they make sense. This is such an important issue, I hope you continue with your research!

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