One of my earliest distinct memories is from 1983. I was eight or nine years old and remember crouching between the side of my bed and the wall, trembling and terrified that I might not wake up one morning because of a nuclear attack. I had heard news reports about President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative called Star Wars and suddenly the monsters were not under my bed or in the closet, but raining from the sky. The deterioration of US relations with North Korea, accentuated by this past weekend’s false alarm in Hawaii, returned that memory to the front of my mind and I wondered how many of today’s nine-year-olds might be losing sleep. Fortunately, I grew up in a time when the news cycle was somewhat more tempered, a time when the mistake in Hawaii wouldn’t have resulted in nearly 40 minutes of widespread panic. That was a time without the near-constant feed of information from social media or ubiquitous televisions, when phones were used to make calls and no one had yet heard of the internet. I can only imagine the stress and strain of today’s daily onslaught of breaking news on young minds not yet developed enough to create mental analytical distance. It’s no wonder, given this background, that college campuses are reporting unprecedented demand for mental health services and support for students.
While mental health is arguably one of the most prominent issues student affairs professionals engage with on a day-to-day basis, ranging from student needs to maintain or manage existing mental illness or stress to providing outlets and avenues for promotion of mental wellness, it is almost invisible in state and federal policymaking. As noted above, state and federal policy conversations can add to the mental distress and strain for many students, but it is rare to see legislation specifically address the growing mental health demands (or the costs of those demands) facing campuses. Policies implemented or being considered nationally in the past year would reverse the gains made to strengthen our general public health and mental health safety nets afforded by the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion in many states. This erosion comes at a time when students are bombarded on all dimensions of health and wellness: physical, emotional, intellectual, social, spiritual, occupational, and financial.
The necessity of a college credential to securing a career path leading to the middle class has broadened the demographics of college attendees. No longer are students predominantly attending full-time and living on-campus immediately after graduating high school. Rather, today’s students are increasingly likely to be working and supporting a household and family. Even among those students who are following the past-traditional path, a welcome reduction in the stigmatization of mental illness means fewer students are suffering in silence, bulling their way through as best they can. And yet, this generation is increasingly plagued with feelings of insecurity and imposter syndrome, increasing suicide risks and undoubtedly contributing to binge drinking. Pressure not only to attend college but also to complete a credential is heightened by fears of falling into a wasteland of insurmountable debt with no degree to help secure a better paying job, fueling increased economic inequality for future generations. All of these factors place a heavy burden on our campuses. Students, their families, and increasingly lawmakers expect that campuses will fill the gaps in our public health infrastructure in the name of supporting student success. Unfortunately, colleges and universities face other just-as-pressing expectations that they will cut costs. These conflicting expectations are unrealistic and undermine the future health and stability of our national competitiveness.
College campuses have once again become center stage in our nation’s continuing struggle to provide and secure equal rights for all residents. Regardless of party affiliation, President Trump is a polarizing figure on campus and his rhetoric around race and immigration is increasingly problematic. Under the guise of free speech and intellectual diversity, public college and universities have been targeted by white supremacist speakers and groups. Student protests in response to growing visibility of white supremacist attacks, systemic racism, and inequality have drawn attention from off-campus groups, increasing both tensions and concerns for student safety. Campus police are faced not only with the need to secure campus safety during controversial speakers and demonstrations, but also with the need to respond sensitively to distressed students, adding another dimension to campus responsibilities to meet students mental health needs.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that safety is a necessary precursor to self-actualization, though far too many students on today’s campuses experience significant and constant anxiety. For example, threats of deportation for undocumented immigrants, either those who have been granted DACA protections or for the families of first-generation citizens, add uncertainty and fear. As DACA’s future is debated in Congress and the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security continue aggressive action against state officials for granting legal protections to immigrant residents, it’s only reasonable to expect academic concerns to take a backseat for immigrant students. Similarly, trans students in states across the country must worry daily about whether or where they can safely go to the bathroom. Adding to that worry is recent news that the Department of Health and Human Services is creating a new conscience and religious freedom division that would allow medical workers to refuse healthcare to trans individuals. And of course, the national #MeToo movement is drawing new public light to the on-going need to address issues of sexual assault and harassment prevention and response across our country as a whole. College campuses have made significant strides forward in addressing sexual assault on campus and providing support for sexual assault survivors in the last 8 years. Changes in Title IX guidance from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in the last year, however, have left many advocates concerned that progress will be lost and victims will once again be left with inadequate support on college campuses.
Responding to students’ mental health needs and supporting student wellness on campus are core functions of student affairs. The need for spaces for individual attention for mental health counseling, treatment and maintenance of existing mental illness, or crisis intervention around instances of trauma are ongoing. In today’s tumultuous social and political settings, campuses are also encouraged to create engagement opportunities for processing national and international events, such as natural disasters, gun violence, or racially-motivated hate incidents. As student affairs professionals work to foster safe and productive learning environments for all students, it is incumbent upon us all to understand the interconnectedness of students’ lives. We must continue to create and foster awareness of how external matters and factors may impact academic outcomes. We must lead conversations regarding students’ often-assumed financial state among our peers (while also remaining sensitive to the fact that many of those peers may themselves be facing the similar challenges, including financial and food insecurity). We must advocate for increased state investment in higher education to support programs that support students, financially and otherwise. We must share promising practices and approaches with each other and reach out to partners within our local communities. And we must also remember to take care of ourselves.
NASPA is committed to providing our members with up-to-date analysis on policy issues affecting our students and campuses to aid in supporting the mental health of not just our students, but all of our campus communities. Student affairs professionals around the nation are working diligently to support student wellness. To aid their efforts, raising awareness of the challenges they face with policymakers is of the utmost importance. As Congress considers the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and state legislatures around the country begin budget discussions, it is imperative for higher education advocates to work to ensure campuses are able to support student success by addressing student mental health and repairing our national health safety net.