In the wake of two completed suicides and an attempted suicide at the University of North Carolina Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz said, “We are in the middle of a mental health crisis, both on our campus and across our nation . . .” The Chancellor is correct.
Six months into the pandemic, according to The Healthy Minds Study: Fall 2020, 21 percent of undergraduates were experiencing severe depression while another 19 percent experienced moderate depression. The same study showed that 16 percent of undergraduates were experiencing severe anxiety with another 18 percent experiencing moderate anxiety.
A study by the Student Experience in the Research University found the prevalence of major depressive disorder among graduate students doubled from 15 percent in 2019 to 32 percent within the first four months of the pandemic. Generalized Anxiety Disorder rose from 26 percent to 39 percent in the same period.
While it has escalated exponentially during the pandemic, the mental health crisis on our campuses is not new. Tracking student mental health over a ten-year period from 2007 to 2017 Healthy Minds found:
- -Student use of mental health services rose from 19 percent to 34 percent.
- -Lifetime mental health diagnoses increased from 22 percent to 36 percent.
The response to this crisis for more than a decade has typically included days of reflection, encouraging students with signs of mental illness to seek traditional help (often unavailable), and awareness programs.
It seems abundantly clear that our students are brutally aware of the mental health crisis they are living – and some dying – through. Awareness is not the issue. Neither is addressing the crisis with traditional mental health treatments.
What is the solution?
Despite the enormity of this challenge, neuroscience gives us reason to be optimistic. Applying neuroscience, colleges and universities can address this crisis at scale to both treat and prevent the growing levels of mental illness among students, faculty and staff. They can develop resilience in place of anxiety and depression. Resilience defined as the ability to thrive amidst adversity.
- Acknowledge the need for a new solution
There will always be a need for psychotherapy, psychiatric medications, and other established treatments and preventions. But providing each person in a sample university community with eight sessions of psychotherapy over the course of a year would be very difficult.
Even if a university could afford this large a counseling and psychological services organization, they simply couldn’t find that many therapists.
Half of those already suffering would wait for more than six months to receive treatment while the number of those afflicted continues to grow.
- Broadly accept the challenge
While many universities have the mission of developing the whole person, none could have anticipated the need to include mental health treatment and prevention on such an enormous scale.
Why should universities accept the challenge of treating and preventing mental illness on such a scale?
For the very simple reason that they are the communities that students, faculty, and staff belong to and rely on. Mental illness undermines those communities and all aspects of the student experience.
Universities should not be the only institutions to accept this challenge.
Businesses have a stake in this as well. With one third of the emerging workforce having either severe anxiety or depression businesses will simply find value creation and growth impossible to sustain.
Society has an even greater stake. If our most talented people are impaired by mental illness who will solve global warming, systemic racism, hunger, and poverty?
- Adopt a population mental health solution
A population mental health solution is an intervention that engages everyone in the university community regardless of whether they currently suffer from anxiety, depression, or another mental illness.
The pandemic has triggered an astonishing rise in mental illness, because the multitude of threats it poses has kept our brains in a constant state of arousal. Over time that constant arousal has wired our brains so that anxiety, depression, and other emotions have become our default state.
Research has identified behaviors that practiced consistently over time will rewire our brains to make resilience our default state. Resilience defined as the ability to thrive amidst adversity. These behaviors are substituted for behaviors associated with anxiety and depression.
The core behaviors to become resilient can be learned in less than five hours either synchronously or asynchronously.
- Leverage existing resources
Recently there has been a call for faculty to play a part in improving student mental health. Exactly how they should do that has not been made clear.
Faculty members can include resilience building behaviors into their teaching and research both improving mental health and academic performance. Here are four simple examples of how this can be done:
- -Begin each class with a 90-second breathing meditation
- -Promote pragmatic optimism (the belief the future will be better, and we each can play a role) in lectures and discussions
- -Emphasize the use of fact-based decision-making in assignments, lectures, and discussions
- -Build student agility by teaching them to formulate and evaluate multiple solutions to problems
Residential Life and Career Counseling staff can use resilience techniques in their counseling and advising of students.
In February 2021, the CDC reported that 4 out of 10 U.S. adults are experiencing anxiety and/or depression. Therefore, any campus solution must address the mental health needs of faculty and staff as well as students.
- Have a bias towards systemic action
There is a tremendous growth in innovative approaches to improving mental health. They employ digital apps, rapid connection with counselors, telehealth, and artificial intelligence. Universities often search for the one best approach. This strategy is sure to fail.
Mental health is at least as complex as physical health. As with most physical diseases, prevention and treatment will not rest on one single approach. A systemic framework of mental health interventions is required to conquer this crisis.
Above all we need to act quickly. Our children’s lives depend on it.
Leo F. Flanagan, Jr., PhD has more than 30 years of experience in studying and developing resilience at the individual, team, organizational and community level. He has responded to numerous disasters including 9/11, the Sandy Hook Newtown Shooting, and Hurricane Sandy. He led the development of a county's first psychiatric emergency service.
Leo also has deep expertise in the corporate sector and consults across a wide range of industries. He has held senior level corporate positions at Merrill Lynch, Willis Holdings and The Forum Corporation.