Prevention & Awareness

Campus Mental Health “Crisis” or “Opportunity”?

We see it every day in the headlines: “The Hidden Mental Health Crisis in America’s Schools.” “Everyone Must Confront Our Mental Health Crisis.” “Are We Facing a Campus Mental Health Epidemic?”

Many of these publications are referring to a challenge many U.S. colleges and universities are facing today due to a mix of factors. An increase in anxiety and depression among students coupled with the fact that more students are seeking help for mental health than ever before is resulting in counseling centers on campuses nationwide struggling to keep up with demand and see students as quickly as they would like. At Active Minds, we hear students report increased wait times to see a counselor, sometimes for as long as four weeks.

But, as mental health advocates, do we inadvertently cause any harm by calling this a “crisis”? After all, by asking for help, aren’t students simply doing what we have been asking them to do?

National campus mental health leaders recently discussed this issue at the American College Health Association’s (ACHA) Mental Health Symposium. Several of the panelists challenged the term “crisis” and pointed out that the increased demand for mental health care on campuses is a direct result of the successes the field has had in destigmatizing mental illness and making it easier for help-seeking.

Additionally, students likely do not want to be labeled as contributing to a crisis for simply seeking help, as they have been encouraged to do.

On the other hand, there are benefits to calling the phenomenon a “crisis.” It draws attention to the issue, for example, and elevates the priority of the need.

As a better alternative, ACHA panelists suggested using the word “opportunity.”

We at Active Minds agree, and here’s why. Referring to the shift we’re seeing on campuses as an opportunity rather than a “crisis” or “epidemic” allows us to:

  • Maintain the gravity of the issue and continue to elevate it as a priority by framing it in terms of the economic and academic benefits of supporting students’ mental health and well-being, which are profound and far-reaching. Read more on this here and here.
  • Celebrate what’s going RIGHT in supporting students’ mental health, rather than only simply responding to tragedy, and share the effective models and lessons learned campuses are demonstrating in response to the shift in demand for services.
  • Apply a comprehensive, public health approach to campus mental health. Many campuses are seeing positive benefits from this approach by focusing on prevention and defining “wellness” broadly in a way that equally prioritizes mental health alongside physical health.
  • Applaud students for putting their well-being first and foremost and having the courage to seek help while ensuring that care is available when they do take that step. We should also include students in the planning and improvement of mental health services and programs as students know best what works for reaching other students.
  • Draw attention to the great successes we have achieved in increasing students’ help-seeking (Suicide IS preventable! Positive mental health is achievable!) and work together to build on that success for the new challenges that now await us.

Together, mental health advocates have had tremendous success elevating student mental health since the days when we first began. We have changed the conversation. It’s time for another conversation shift, and together, we can help others see the benefits, value, and opportunity in meeting students’ clear message for a more comprehensive, campus-wide approach to mental health and student well-being.

For examples of campus best practices and lessons learned around creating healthy campuses, driven by student inclusion in the process, read Active Minds’ Healthy Campus Award Key Findings Report.