Many family sacrifices are justified when a son or daughter goes to college. But that dream can be affected by the high-risk college students’ face of developing mental health problems. In recent years, the welfare units of the universities have detected a growing demand for care in this area.
What does the available data say?
27% of the students present severe depressive symptoms, 24% have problematic alcohol consumption, and 15% some type of eating disorder.
A malaise runs through the universities. Academic overload, stress, and mental health problems have recently become the object of new demands from university federations. What are the roots of this malaise? And most considerably: how can we deal with it?
Entering higher education opens up great opportunities, but it also means overcoming the challenges of the transition to adulthood.
This period of “emerging adulthood” (18-28 years) is often accompanied by a departure from families, migration from the places of origin, the need to balance studies with employment, economic difficulties, and uncertainty about the future.
Many young people must also adapt to profound changes in social roles, such as the transition from a highly structured and protected school model to one characterized by flexibility, autonomy, new demands, and learning methods.
Likewise, passing through the university can be associated with inconsistencies or mismatches between high expectations (more significant job opportunities and income, upward social mobility) and the real opportunities available to students once they graduate (high competition in the labor market, associated tensions to indebtedness).
College and mental health problems.
Various studies have shown that obtaining a university degree has a protective effect against mental health problems throughout life. However, the university period is a particular time when young people have a high prevalence of mental health problems. It is, in fact, a period that coincides with the onset of most mental disorders.
During the last years, the welfare units of the universities have detected a growing demand for attention associated with mental health problems. In this context, what does the available data tell us? International figures allow estimating that around 20% of university students meet the criteria for major depression.
Some studies indicate high rates of anxiety and depressive symptoms in this population, particularly among female students, being even higher than the national average in the corresponding age groups.
A prevalence study shows that 27% of university students present severe depressive symptoms. The same research identifies that 10% of students meet the criteria for bipolar disorder, while 24% have problematic alcohol use, and 15% suffer from some type of eating disorder.
Likewise, 5% of the students would present a moderate to severe risk of the suicide attempt. Added to these figures are the growing and deregulated use of drugs -such as methylphenidate or modafinil to achieve higher levels of concentration and performance in periods of high academic demand.
Are we facing one of the consequences of academic (over) load?
Various diagnoses of the time remind us that we currently live in “performance societies” characterized by compulsive overwork.
In this type of society, individuals are in permanent competition with others, but also with themselves.
The flip side of performance is fatigue, feelings of inadequacy, restlessness, and depression. In this way, the experience of acute, chronic stress or burn-out would be nothing but the consequence of voluntary exploitation of oneself that pretends to be freedom, success, and self-realization.
Is it also a problem that affects our universities?
Many voices have argued that the academic load, long hours of study, and numerous nights without sleep would be the main factor affecting the mental health of students. There is a consensus in the welfare units of the universities that the main reasons for psychological consultation among students are related to the academic area. And it is that the perception of risking the future in the exams seems to have a significant impact on their emotional well-being.
Is academic overload the cause of the problem?
It would be reductionist to think that it is the only factor. For one thing, the underlying causes vary from person to person; not all students respond equally to the same burden. Indeed, not all of their problems are related to their college experiences.
On the other hand, students tend to seek help once their academic performance suffers. Still, often their difficulties begin much earlier and are associated with vulnerabilities and risk factors that have been dragging on from adolescence.
Therefore, to understand this university malaise, it is necessary to interpret it in the context of the broader changes that have occurred in generational dynamics and the higher education system.
On the one hand, mental health problems seem to be increasingly frequent in children and adolescents, which could explain the worsening of these when new generations enter the higher education system.
On the other hand, the profound diversification of university enrollment during the last decades and the valuable efforts to reduce the socioeconomic barriers to entry have produced an important change in the socio-demographic profile of the students, allowing the incorporation of groups of people who present a greater risk of emerging mental health problems (in particular, women and individuals from more vulnerable groups).
These processes may be accompanied by the reproduction of experiences of inequality within the institutions, causing difficulties in adapting the first generations of university students to the new social context that university life represents.
What if the high global prevalence of mental health problems among university students is but a symptom of a crisis in the modern idea of the university?
The institution that we know as a university has been developed based on the modern-industrial conception of education as a chain of production and distribution of knowledge. This idea assumes the assumption that while we provide students with a set of data and skills, they will be able to create a sufficiently coherent account of reality to be able to transform it. However, the complexity of today’s world confronts young people with enormous amounts of information that is difficult to assimilate, demanding greater emotional, cognitive, and relational flexibility to adapt to accelerated changes.
The use of technology cannot be ignored.
An important question is how it is used, since limiting screen time is not the answer, especially in a digital age in which so much is based, more convenient, or better through new technologies. But if a student sleeps with their phone under their pillow, gets lost on Instagram instead of sleeping, and falls into the niche of social comparison games, then yes, there will be a problem.
You also need to explore the context. When working with mental health problems, it is not particularly helpful to identify a specific “cause.” However, the use of technology may play a role in a person’s symptoms of anxiety or depression. There are surely other factors at play, and to support that person, it is necessary to see what more is happening in their world, its challenges, and its protective factors.
College student’s mental health: What can colleges do?
The early disclosure of mental health problems and the implementation of mental health prevention and promotion activities are some measures that universities can take.
“During the week, they blow us up with controls. At the weekend we burst on the reels”. It is how a student characterizes the ups and downs of university mental health.
At this stage, many mental health problems appear or get worse. Consequently, some student federations have called for an increase in psychologists and psychiatrists in the student welfare units. It must be borne in attention, however, that universities are academic communities, not health institutions.
Even when the healthcare offer improves substantially, it will be difficult for universities to lower prevalence rates or substitute the care offered by specialized health services.
Therefore, instead of trying to replace existing services, it is more effective to improve links and communication between universities and local services to facilitate the referral of more complicated cases.
Many students with mental health problems are reluctant to disclose them and ask for help. One of the causes of this silence is the fear of potential discrimination they may suffer in their university lives.
Although large sectors of the population bear these problems, the idea persists that these are amplifications that we can fix with character and discipline.
Today, children are sent to the psychologist. They are given all kinds of medications, over-diagnosed. Back then, a kick in the fret and it was the best and holy remedy. And also free”.
In a cultural context where many people think this way, it is necessary to start with the implementation of awareness campaigns and activities that reduce the stigma associated with mental health problems. It is because these prejudices contribute to reinforcing barriers in seeking help and in the use of student health services.
Mental health complications have a substantial influence on academic performance.
Mental health problems increase the risk of dropping out of careers. They can act dangerously on people’s perception of themselves and their social relationships, as well as being strong predictors of lower performance functional level and level of future employability.
Beyond these possible causes, the truth is that mental health problems can affect students at any point in their career. However, the early stages of college life have the potential to become a critical setting for the prevention, detection, and early treatment of problems that not only affect today’s life but compromise the well-being of tomorrow.