Expert Commentary

5 tips to help you cover the college mental health crisis

Mental health experts Gino Aisenberg, co-director of the Latino Center for Health at the University of Washington, and Tony Walker, senior vice president of academic programs at The Jed Foundation, share advice to help journalists improve their coverage of college mental health.

college mental health crisis tips journalists
(Transly Translation Agency/Unsplash)

In her inaugural address as Dartmouth College’s new president Sept. 22, Sian Leah Beilock vowed to make student mental health a central part of her leadership agenda.

“Fortunately, understanding how anxiety and stress play out in the brain and body has been the focus of my research for the past 20 years,” said Beilock, a leading scholar and former psychology professor at the University of Chicago who was president of Barnard College the last six years.

“The single greatest service we can do for our students, our faculty, and our staff is to support them on their wellness journeys,” she added.

Choosing a cognitive scientist to lead the Ivy League school reflects a broader trend across higher education in the U.S. College presidents nationwide say they are committed to making mental health an institutional priority amid what public health researchers call a national college student mental health crisis.

In fact, when the American Council on Education asked presidents in late 2021 about the issues they consider most pressing, they cited “mental health of students” most frequently.

College student mental health has worsened over time, as has the mental health of high school students, researchers find. During the 2022-23 academic year, an estimated 41% of college students had symptoms of depression and 36% had symptoms of anxiety disorder, according to a national survey conducted by the Healthy Minds Network, a group of scholars who study mental health among U.S. adolescents and young adults.

Of the 76,406 college students who participated, 14% said they had seriously considered suicide during the previous 12 months. The same proportion had symptoms of an eating disorder.

When the organization surveyed college students back in 2018-19, 21% reported symptoms of depression and 22% had symptoms of anxiety disorder. Meanwhile, 10% of students said they had seriously considered suicide and 7% had symptoms of an eating disorder.

Mental health problems more common among minority, LGBTQ students

Published studies indicate some groups of students fare worse than others. For example, racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to experience mental health problems than white students. Likewise, LGBTQ students tend to have poorer mental health than those who aren’t sexual or gender minorities.

Another group that college administrators worry about: first-generation college students — those who are the first in their families to go to college and often must navigate their higher education careers with little to no guidance from parents and other family members.

When researchers compared first-generation students and students whose parents went to college from 2018 to 2021, they learned that symptoms of depression and anxiety disorder were common in both. However, first-generation college students were much less likely to get help from professionals.

“Just 32.8% of first-generation students with symptoms received therapy in the past year, relative to 42.8% among continuing-generation students, and this disparity widened during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the researchers write in the paper, published in June.

In December, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a public health advisory calling attention to the rising number of youth attempting suicide. Last week, Murthy and seven former surgeons general traveled to Dartmouth for a historic meeting about the country’s mental health crisis.

Tips for journalists

Considering the urgency and importance of this issue, we asked two mental health experts for advice on how journalists can improve their coverage.

In the five tips we outline below, you’ll find suggestions and insights from Gino Aisenberg, an associate professor of social work and co-director of the Latino Center for Health at the University of Washington, and Tony Walker, senior vice president of academic programs for The Jed Foundation, a nonprofit that helps higher education institutions, high schools and school districts implement strategies to prevent suicide and protect emotional health.

1. Make it clear to your audiences that the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t cause this crisis. Student mental health had been declining for years before the virus reached the U.S.

Several research studies and reports chronicle this trend, including a paper published last year that finds the proportion of college students with symptoms of depression and anxiety disorder nearly doubled between 2013 and 2019. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the first laboratory-confirmed case of COVID-19 in America in January 2020.

However, the pandemic has exacerbated the problem, especially among the most marginalized students, researchers find.

“College students now face increasing housing and food insecurity, financial hardships, a lack of social connectedness and sense of belonging, uncertainty about the future, and access issues that impede their academic performance and well-being,” researchers write in the 2021 paper, “More Than Inconvenienced: The Unique Needs of U.S. College Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

Psychiatrist Annelle Primm and other mental health professions have spoken out about the mental health impacts of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ban on affirmative action in higher education admissions. Higher education leaders expect it to reduce the number of underrepresented minorities attending the nation’s most competitive colleges and universities.

”We believe that the discontinuation of affirmative action will increase isolation and decrease a sense of belonging among students of color, both of which pose risks to mental health,” Primm, the senior medical director of the Steve Fund, a nonprofit organization that focuses on the mental health of young people of color, writes in Diverse Issues of Higher Education.

She cites a 2019 report from the University of Michigan, which stopped practicing affirmative action in 2006, as evidence. One-fourth of its Black, Latino and Native American students said they did not feel they belonged at the school — a 66% increase over 10 years, she notes.

2. Familiarize yourself with two ongoing studies of college student mental health: the Healthy Minds Study, which focuses on U.S. college students, and the World Mental Health International College Student Initiative, which collects data from college students across the globe.

Academic researchers affiliated with these two projects conduct regular surveys of college students to track the prevalence of mental health problems and better understand the factors that affect their mental health and discourage them from seeking help. These researchers also publish studies examining and interpreting the data they collect through annual, web-based surveys.

The Healthy Minds Study, launched in 2007, has been fielded at more than 530 U.S. colleges and universities. Tens of thousands of undergraduate and graduate students complete the survey each year.

Four university faculty members lead the project: Sarah Lipson, an associate professor in Boston University’s department of health law policy and management; Daniel Eisenberg, a professor of health policy of management at the University of California, Los Angeles; Justin Heinze, an associate professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan; and Sasha Zhou, an assistant professor of public health at Wayne State University.

In 2019, the World Health Organization started the World Mental Health International College Student Initiative. The project, commonly referred to as WMH-ICS, aims to collect data from college students worldwide. But as of early October 2023, only the U.S. and 17 other countries, eight of which are in Europe, participate.

The two lead U.S. researchers on that project are Randy Auerbach, an associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, and Ronald Kessler, the McNeil Family Professor of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School.

3. Emphasize that improving student mental health will require much more than hiring additional campus counselors.

The Jed Foundation advises administrators to focus on the wellness of the entire student body, not just students experiencing distress and those with a diagnosed mental illness. It also encourages schools to invest in programs aimed at preventing mental health issues and detecting them earlier. 

That guidance falls in line with recommendations that a committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine made in 2021, following an 18-month investigation into how campus culture affects college student mental health and well-being. Committee members stressed the need for a comprehensive approach — one in which everyone on campus, including faculty and staff across departments, pitch in to change campus culture.

Walker, The Jed Foundation’s senior vice president of academic programs, urges journalists to take a broader look at the problem as well.

“When we talk about mental health — and sometimes the media is inadvertently guilty of this — we tend to just focus on therapists and we tend to focus on access to mental health care,” Walker tells The Journalist’s Resource. “Mental health is not just counseling.”

Interventions that show promise, according to research studies, include peer counseling, mindfulness training and activities that connect students with similar backgrounds, such as students who are the first in their families to go to college.

4. Explain that all college students face a range of stressors, but certain groups, including racial minorities and LGBTQ students, grapple with additional ones.

College can be stressful, requiring students to juggle class assignments, work and personal relationships while preparing for careers and making sure there’s enough money for food, housing, tuition and other basic needs. A lot of students worry about shootings and other forms of violence on college campuses.

Some student groups face additional stressors, such as racism and discrimination — topics that news stories about college mental health often overlook or gloss over. Many racial and ethnic minorities experience racism throughout their lives, including at their institutions, notes Aisenberg, who co-founded the Latino Center for Health, a research center at the University of Washington focused on improving the health of Latino people across Washington and the U.S.

Sometimes, racism is blatant, he adds. Sometimes, it comes in the form of microaggressions, offensive or insensitive remarks or questions aimed at some aspect of a person’s identity, such as their race, physical appearance, immigration status or cultural traditions.

“For some individuals, one microaggression might not throw them off,” says Aisenberg, who is Mexican American. “Another microaggression I experience the same day and another one and another one — over time, it can weigh [a person] down.”

When Gallup Inc., a company known for its public opinion polls, interviewed 1,106 Black college students last fall, about 1 in 5 reported feeling “frequently” or “occasionally” discriminated against at school. Almost 1 in 3 Black students attending schools where there’s little racial or ethnic diversity among the student body indicated they feel discriminated against “frequently” or “occasionally.”

Nearly one-third of Black students enrolled at such institutions also said they feel physically unsafe, disrespected and psychologically unsafe, according to an analysis released early this year by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation, a private foundation working to increase the share of Americans who continue their education past high school.

Aisenberg says it’s important journalists understand the role racism and discrimination play in student mental health. He’d like to see colleges invest more heavily in culturally responsive counseling, hiring mental health professionals who recognize and draw on the cultural strengths of students from minoritized backgrounds to help them.

Such counselors will understand why some student groups tend to resist therapy more than others.

“Latinos might be going to an indigenous healer, a priest, a minister long before seeking mental health services,” Aisenberg says.

5. Consult style guides that mental health experts have created specifically to help journalists use correct language and avoid perpetuating stereotypes about people with mental illness.

Several U.S. and international organizations have created style guides and tip sheets to help journalists provide a more complete and more accurate picture of mental health. They often offer guidance on word choices and point out common errors.

The California Mental Health Services Authority, for instance, warns journalists to be careful not to insinuate mental illness drove someone to commit a crime.

“Most people with a mental illness don’t commit crimes; most people who commit crimes don’t have a mental illness,” according to the government agency’s style guide. “People with psychiatric issues are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence.”

Some other recommendations: Consider whether someone’s mental illness is relevant to a news story before including that information. Also, don’t rely on hearsay about a person’s mental health diagnosis.

Check out these resources, too:

About The Author