Expert Commentary

Improving college student mental health: Research on promising campus interventions

Hiring more counselors isn’t enough to improve college student mental health, scholars warn. We look at research on programs and policies schools have tried, with varying results.

college student mental health
(Image generated by artificial intelligence system DALL.E 2 with directions from Carmen Nobel.)

If you’re a journalist covering higher education in the U.S., you’ll likely be reporting this fall on what many healthcare professionals and researchers are calling a college student mental health crisis.

An estimated 49% of college students have symptoms of depression or anxiety disorder and 14% seriously considered committing suicide during the past year, according to a national survey of college students conducted during the 2022-23 school year. Nearly one-third of the 76,406 students who participated said they had intentionally injured themselves in recent months.

In December, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a rare public health advisory calling attention to the rising number of youth attempting suicide, noting the COVID-19 pandemic has “exacerbated the unprecedented stresses young people already faced.”

Meanwhile, colleges and universities of all sizes are struggling to meet the need for mental health care among undergraduate and graduate students. Many schools have hired more counselors and expanded services but continue to fall short.

Hundreds of University of Houston students held a protest earlier this year, demanding the administration increase the number of counselors and make other changes after two students died by suicide during the spring semester, the online publication Chron reported.

In an essay in the student-run newspaper, The Cougar, last week, student journalist Malachi Key blasts the university for having one mental health counselor for every 2,122 students, a ratio higher than recommended by the International Accreditation of Counseling Services, which accredits higher education counseling services.

But adding staff to a campus counseling center won’t be enough to improve college student mental health and well-being, scholars and health care practitioners warn.

“Counseling centers cannot and should not be expected to solve these problems alone, given that the factors and forces affecting student well-being go well beyond the purview and resources that counseling centers can bring to bear,” a committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine writes in a 2021 report examining the issue.

Advice from prominent scholars

The report is the culmination of an 18-month investigation the National Academies launched in 2019, at the request of the federal government, to better understand how campus culture affects college student mental health and well-being. Committee members examined data, studied research articles and met with higher education leaders, mental health practitioners, researchers and students.

The committee’s key recommendation: that schools take a more comprehensive approach to student mental health, implementing a wide range of policies and programs aimed at preventing mental health problems and improving the well-being of all students — in addition to providing services and treatment for students in distress and those with diagnosed mental illnesses.

Everyone on campus, including faculty and staff across departments, needs to pitch in to establish a new campus culture, the committee asserts.

“An ‘all hands’ approach, one that emphasizes shared responsibility and a holistic understanding of what it means in practice to support students, is needed if institutions of higher education are to intervene from anything more than a reactive standpoint,” committee members write. “Creating this systemic change requires that institutions examine the entire culture and environment of the institution and accept more responsibility for creating learning environments where a changing student population can thrive.”

In a more recent analysis, three leading scholars in the field also stress the need for a broader plan of action.

Sara Abelson, a research assistant professor at Temple University’s medical school; Sarah Lipson, an associate professor at the Boston University School of Public Health; and Daniel Eisenberg,  a professor of health policy and management at the University of California, Los Angeles’ School of Public Health, have been studying college student mental health for years.

Lipson and Eisenberg also are principal investigators for the Healthy Minds Network, which administers the Healthy Minds Study, a national survey of U.S college students conducted annually to gather information about their mental health, whether and how they receive mental health care and related issues.

Abelson, Lipson and Eisenberg review the research to date on mental health interventions for college students in the 2022 edition of Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research. They note that while the evidence indicates a multi-pronged approach is best, it’s unclear which specific strategies are most effective.

Much more research needed

Abelson, Lipson and Eisenberg stress the need for more research. Many interventions in place at colleges and universities today — for instance, schoolwide initiatives aimed at reducing mental health stigma and encouraging students to seek help when in duress – should be evaluated to gauge their effectiveness, they write in their chapter, “Mental Health in College Populations: A Multidisciplinary Review of What Works, Evidence Gaps, and Paths Forward.”

They add that researchers and higher education leaders also need to look at how campus operations, including hiring practices and budgetary decisions, affect college student mental health. It would be helpful to know, for example, how students are impacted by limits on the number of campus counseling sessions they can have during a given period, Abelson, Lipson and Eisenberg suggest.

Likewise, it would be useful to know whether students are more likely to seek counseling when they must pay for their sessions or when their school charges every member of the student body a mandatory health fee that provides free counseling for all students.

“These financially-based considerations likely influence help-seeking and treatment receipt, but they have not been evaluated within higher education,” they write.

Interventions that show promise

The report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the chapter by Abelson, Lipson and Eisenberg both spotlight programs and policies shown to prevent mental health problems or improve the mental health and well-being of young people. However, many intervention studies focus on high school students, specific groups of college students or specific institutions. Because of this, it can be tough to predict how well they would work across the higher education landscape.

Scientific evaluations of these types of interventions indicate they are effective:

  • Building students’ behavior management skills and having them practice new skills under expert supervision. An example: A class that teaches students how to use mindfulness to improve their mental and physical health that includes instructor-led meditation exercises.
  • Training some students to offer support to others, including sharing information and organizing peer counseling groups. “Peers may be ‘the single most potent source of influence’ on student affective and cognitive growth and development during college,” Abelson, Lipson and Eisenberg write.
  • Reducing students’ access to things they can use to harm themselves, including guns and lethal doses of over-the-counter medication.
  • Creating feelings of belonging through activities that connect students with similar interests or backgrounds.
  • Making campuses more inclusive for racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ students and students who are the first in their families to go to college. One way to do that is by hiring mental health professionals trained to recognize, support and treat students from different backgrounds. “Research has shown that the presentation of [mental health] symptoms can differ based on racial and ethnic backgrounds, as can engaging in help-seeking behaviors that differ from those of cisgender, heteronormative white men,” explain members of National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee.

Helping journalists sift through the evidence

We encourage journalists to read the full committee report and aforementioned chapter in Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research. We realize, though, that many journalists won’t have time to pour over the combined 304 pages of text to better understand this issue and the wide array of interventions colleges and universities have tried, with varying success.

To help, we’ve gathered and summarized meta-analyses that investigate some of the more common interventions. Researchers conduct meta-analyses — a top-tier form of scientific evidence — to systematically analyze all the numerical data that appear in academic studies on a given topic. The findings of a meta-analysis are statistically stronger than those reached in a single study, partly because pooling data from multiple, similar studies creates a larger sample to examine.

Keep reading to learn more. And please check back here occasionally because we’ll add to this list as new research on college student mental health is published.

Peer-led programs

Stigma and Peer-Led Interventions: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
Jing Sun; et al. Frontiers in Psychiatry, July 2022.

When people diagnosed with a mental illness received social or emotional support from peers with similar mental health conditions, they experienced less stress about the public stigma of mental illness, this analysis suggests.

The intervention worked for people from various age groups, including college students and middle-aged adults, researchers learned after analyzing seven studies on peer-led mental health programs written or published between 1975 and 2021.

Researchers found that participants also became less likely to identify with negative stereotypes associated with mental illness.

All seven studies they examined are randomized controlled trials conducted in the U.S., Germany or Switzerland. Together, the findings represent the experiences of a total of 763 people, 193 of whom were students at universities in the U.S.

Researchers focused on interventions designed for small groups of people, with the goal of reducing self-stigma and stress associated with the public stigma of mental illness. One or two trained peer counselors led each group for activities spanning three to 10 weeks.

Five of the seven studies tested the Honest, Open, Proud program, which features role-playing exercises, self-reflection and group discussion. It encourages participants to consider disclosing their mental health issues, instead of keeping them a secret, in hopes that will help them feel more confident and empowered. The two other programs studied are PhotoVoice, based in the United Kingdom, and

“By sharing their own experiences or recovery stories, peer moderators may bring a closer relationship, reduce stereotypes, and form a positive sense of identity and group identity, thereby reducing self-stigma,” the authors of the analysis write.

Expert-led instruction

The Effects of Meditation, Yoga, and Mindfulness on Depression, Anxiety, and Stress in Tertiary Education Students: A Meta-Analysis
Josefien Breedvelt; et al. Frontiers in Psychiatry, April 2019.

Meditation-based programs help reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress among college students, researchers find after analyzing the results of 24 research studies conducted in various parts of North America, Asia and Europe.

Reductions were “moderate,” researchers write. They warn, however, that the results of their meta-analysis should be interpreted with caution considering studies varied in quality.

A total of 1,373 college students participated in the 24 studies. Students practiced meditation, yoga or mindfulness an average of 153 minutes a week for about seven weeks. Most programs were provided in a group setting.

Although the researchers do not specify which types of mindfulness, yoga or meditation training students received, they note that the most commonly offered mindfulness program is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and that a frequently practiced form of yoga is Hatha Yoga.

Meta-Analytic Evaluation of Stress Reduction Interventions for Undergraduate and Graduate Students
Miryam Yusufov; et al. International Journal of Stress Management, May 2019.

After examining six types of stress-reduction programs common on college campuses, researchers determined all were effective at reducing stress or anxiety among students — and some helped with both stress and anxiety.

Programs focusing on cognitive-behavioral therapy, coping skills and building social support networks were more effective in reducing stress. Meanwhile, relaxation training, mindfulness-based stress reduction and psychoeducation were more effective in reducing anxiety.

The authors find that all six program types were equally effective for undergraduate and graduate students.

The findings are based on an analysis of 43 studies dated from 1980 to 2015, 30 of which were conducted in the U.S. The rest were conducted in Australia, China, India, Iran, Japan, Jordan, Kora, Malaysia or Thailand. A total of 4,400 students participated.

Building an inclusive environment

Cultural Adaptations and Therapist Multicultural Competence: Two Meta-Analytic Reviews
Alberto Soto; et al. Journal of Clinical Psychology, August 2018.

If racial and ethnic minorities believe their therapist understands their background and culture, their treatment tends to be more successful, this analysis suggests.

“The more a treatment is tailored to match the precise characteristics of a client, the more likely that client will engage in treatment, remain in treatment, and experience improvement as a result of treatment,” the authors write.

Researchers analyzed the results of 15 journal articles and doctoral dissertations that examine therapists’ cultural competence. Nearly three-fourths of those studies were written or published in 2010 or later. Together, the findings represent the experiences of 2,640 therapy clients, many of whom were college students. Just over 40% of participants were African American and 32% were Hispanic or Latino.

The researchers note that they find no link between therapists’ ratings of their own level of cultural competence and client outcomes.

Internet-based interventions

Internet Interventions for Mental Health in University Students: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
Mathias Harrer; et al. International Journal of Methods in Psychiatric Research, June 2019.

Internet-based mental health programs can help reduce stress and symptoms of anxiety, depression and eating disorders among college students, according to an analysis of 48 research studies published or written before April 30, 2018 on the topic.

All 48 studies were randomized, controlled trials of mental health interventions that used the internet to engage with students across various platforms and devices, including mobile phones and apps. In total, 10,583 students participated in the trials.

“We found small effects on depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms, as well as moderate‐sized effects on eating disorder symptoms and students’ social and academic functioning,” write the authors, who conducted the meta-analysis as part of the World Mental Health International College Student Initiative.

The analysis indicates programs that focus on cognitive behavioral therapy “were superior to other types of interventions.” Also, programs “of moderate length” — one to two months – were more effective.

The researchers note that studies of programs targeting depression showed better results when students were not compensated for their participation, compared to studies in which no compensation was provided. The researchers do not offer possible explanations for the difference in results or details about the types of compensation offered to students.

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