College students are demanding access to more mental health counselors. Even before the pandemic, students were struggling with a range of mental health issues. Covid exacerbated this mental health crisis, and colleges — in response — are devoting their limited and often-shrinking budgets to hiring more counselors.
On the one hand, counselors can save lives, and students deserve access to mental health counseling. On the other hand, there are times when it feels as if hiring more counselors is offered as a panacea, and this causes its own problems.
To start, the demand for more counselors often ignores issues of quality. Not all counselors are created equal, and not all schools can attract and retain good counselors.
I worry that students will be disappointed when they realize that although they got more counselors, things didn’t get better. This is because there aren’t enough top-quality counselors to meet the demand, and because — in many ways — looking to the counseling center to solve all our mental health problems lets colleges off the hook too easily.
When a student gets to a four-year residential college, they are often faced with an unhealthy culture. For example, there is too much binge drinking on residential college campuses. Colleges also harbor toxic hookup cultures that too often lead to sexual assaults.
Though a counselor can help an individual student get a better handle on their substance or social media use, this does very little to change the cultures and climates that negatively impact college students’ mental health to begin with.
Colleges know this, and they aren’t doing enough in response. If the normal college experience in America is defined by unhealthy behaviors, then I think we can see how hiring more counselors — though necessary —is far from sufficient to bring about the deeper changes that will lead to healthier cultures for students.
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Here are some steps colleges can take in addition to hiring more counselors to create a holistic response to the mental health crisis that is impacting so many students and families.
First, we need to change the narrative about what it means to have a college experience. Too many students put too much pressure on themselves to do it all and at once, even if this means engaging in the unhealthy behaviors that negatively impact their mental health and well-being.
High schools and colleges can be more intentional about preparing students for a successful transition to college. Students need to be given permission by the people they respect to fully engage in and be present to those few things that give them purpose, even if this means doing less — from a quantitative or status perspective — than other students. Having this sense of purpose will make it easier for students to say no to aspects of college culture they know to be unhealthy but have trouble resisting absent that purpose.
There are times when it feels as if hiring more counselors is offered as a panacea, and this causes its own problems.
Second, because mental health challenges are often caused by campus cultures, students should be encouraged to work together to change those cultures. Though counselors can help individuals manage how they respond to the environment they are in, groups of students can work together to change the cultures that lead so many students to seek counseling.
Colleges can offer more action research courses in which students study their campus and propose ways to make it better. Colleges can also incentivize the formation of clubs that create healthier cultures on campus and incentivize faculty to teach courses attuned to the mental health challenges students face.
Third, professors are not counselors, but good teaching has the power to offer purpose and hope. We are uniquely positioned to create learning experiences that engage the whole student and that get them excited to learn and grow as individuals.
Though this type of teaching most certainly doesn’t replace counseling, I believe that if more students were more fully engaged in their studies and found purpose in their coursework, the overall climate for mental health would improve.
Finally, though face-to-face counseling may be the best possible counseling, students need to rethink resistance to Zoom and telecounseling. Though telecounseling may not be the ideal solution, it may be the best possible option they have.
And students learning to appreciate the good-though-less-than-ideal is another way to build the resilience and resourcefulness that will contribute positively to their individual and collective mental health and well-being.
Mental health struggles are real. Mental health counselors are important. But it is also important to expand our ways of thinking about how to best respond to the crisis that is impacting so many young people.
I admire the students who are fighting to create better mental health climates on college campuses. Hiring more counselors is not the only, or even the main, way to get there. We all need to think more holistically about how to best address this most pressing issue.
Jeff Frank is an associate professor in the Education Department at St. Lawrence University in New York.
This story about college students’ mental health was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.