photo illustration of a stressed out student photo illustration of a stressed out student

Photo illustration by The 61% Project Staff.


7 Ways College Undermines Students’ Mental Health

There’s more to the story of the mental-health crisis on college campuses than a dramatic increase in anxious, stressed students. The academy itself — from 18-credit semesters to soul-crippling debt, finals, and the pivot to leadership development — contributes to the issue in notable ways, experts explain.

Academia, heal thyself. When it comes to examining the mental-health crisis on college campuses, one issue rarely earns attention or coverage — the way in which the experience itself contributes to students’ stress, anxiety, and depression. In fact, it may be time to sideline all the discussion about negative characteristics frequently attributed to current college-age generations (lack of resiliency, social-media dependent, and in need of praise and coddling thanks to overprotective parents) and turn a critical eye to the institutions of higher learning themselves and the role they play in students’ mental health. “It is not enough for institutions to promote students’ cognitive development or instill marketable skills,” wrote Steven Mintz, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, in Inside Higher Ed. “Colleges and universities have a parallel responsibility to educate the whole person, promote students’ social, emotional, and interpersonal development, and embrace Arthur Chickering’s call for institutions to help students define an adult identity, learn to manage their emotions, develop mature interpersonal relationships, and chart clear vocational goals.” In his editorial, Mintz identifies several ways in which institutions thwart emotional well-being, including the pressure of perfection felt by students and rewarded by institutions, the impersonality of the modern university, an inability to adequately address gender, ethnic, and racial issues, and the insensitivity and unresponsiveness of some faculty to students’ unmet needs. To better understand how universities might better support the mental health of students, The 61% Project spoke to seven education experts, and below they offer their big ideas.

EXPAND Mental-Health Support Beyond Counseling

Some universities (such as Syracuse University) have begun to address physical health and activity’s connection to positive mental health by enlisting exercise and nutrition as tools to combat low-level anxiety and stress by “prescribing” personal trainers and registered dieticians, who assist students in leveraging these tools. Understanding the power of exercise and nutrition is not new, but elevating exercise’s role in combatting stress and anxiety through a university-backed initiative is. The 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Scientific Report by the Department of Health & Human Services reports that regular physical activity decreases the risk of anxiety and helps lessen overall anxiety symptoms. “Even one exercise session can have an immediate effect, and being consistently physically active can have a more global effect on an individual’s anxiety and depression,” says Robyn Stuhr, vice president of the Exercise is Medicine program. The American College of Sports Medicine created the Exercise is Medicine program in 2007, and it now spans across 275 college campuses around the world. It focuses on achieving the systematic promotion of physical activity in healthcare settings and then linking healthcare with evidence-based physical activity resources.

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SCRAP the End-of-Semester Pile-on

Whether it’s Elle Woods pulling all-nighters to pass the LSAT or Spongebob sweating in the middle of his boating-school exam, popular culture glorifies the challenges of big tests and final exams. Larry Marks, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist at University of Central Florida, says that there is no doubt finals take a toll on the mental health of students. “There’s tons of stress because there is demand for a student to have to study and prepare,” he says, “but the experience of stress could vary across individuals, depending on their experience, their preparation, and how they manage various stressors.” But limited sleep and extra stress continue to serve as the hallmarks of finals week. And even the most prepared students may experience overwhelming stress throughout this time of the semester, and a lack of sleep can hinder both mental wellness and academic performance.

“There’s tons of stress because there is demand for a student to have to study and prepare, but the experience of stress could vary across individuals, depending on their experience, their preparation, and how they manage various stressors.”

According to a 2018 study published in the Teaching of Psychology Journal titled “The Eight Hour Sleep Challenge During Final Exams Week,” fewer than 10% of college students sleep a full eight hours in the nights before final exams. Another study published in Motivation and Emotion from the same year titled “University Students’ Sleep During an Exam Period: The Role of Basic Psychological Needs and Stress” addresses the direct effects of inadequate sleep on wellness during finals week by examining students’ sleep-related functioning before, during, and after an exam period. From the pre-exam to the exam period, students’ sleep quality, sleep quantity, and daytime functioning all deteriorated. The exam to the post-exam period, however, marked improvements in sleep quality, quantity, and daytime functioning. According to the study, these correlated changes in mental function and other sleep-related outcomes were largely accounted for by changes in stress, suggesting that stress may play an explanatory role in damaging sleep quality, sleep quantity, and daytime functioning in students during periods of final exams.

So if the role of college is to acquire knowledge, expecting them to do big projects, tests, and papers undermines their ability to retain any of it. A 2019 study published in Current Biology highlighted a poor night’s sleep’s negative impact on brain functioning — particularly the amygdala, which plays a role in the consolidation of memories for long-term learning. Studies show the loss of one night of sleep impairs working memory, which assists with reasoning and planning. Even partial sleep deprivation can produce a significant effect on mood, including feeling more stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted. By comparison, a good night’s sleep bolsters concentration for learning and remembering what we learned.

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STOP Glorifying Suffering

Beyond the impact on learning, information retention, planning, and mood,the culture of all-nighters also bolsters the narrative on college campuses that suffering is noble — that more clubs, more minors, more internships, even more AP classes to earn admission to the right college — is better. “Suffering is not noble,” says Ellen Plummer Ph.D., the associate vice provost for academic administration at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Va., during the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Academic Leaders Network Conference. “The narrative and ethic of over-extension, of staying up all night, it undermines our students’ success, and it shapes our ability to lead individually and collectively.” And sleep and the inability of students to secure ample amounts of it serve as the canary in the campus coal mine. Roxanne Prichard Ph.D., the scientific director at the Center for College Sleep at the University of St. Thomas, says that there are many questions to take into account when analyzing if a campus promotes healthy or unhealthy sleeping habits: “Is your library open 24 hours? Are professors making classroom assignments due at midnight? When does the gym or the library open up on the weekend? Is there food available early in the morning on the weekends?”

Prichard says that there are ways to manage sleep and to maintain good “sleep hygiene.” For example, you can keep a sleep schedule, monitor caffeine and alcohol intake, or the intake of other drugs that can manipulate sleep. “It is also thinking through what the sleep environment is like. Is it cold, dark, quiet? Do you use your bedform for things other than sleep and bedroom activities? So if you’re doing homework and stuff in bed, that’s training your brain to be active and stressed in bed. Our body’s natural response to sleep deprivation is anxiety.” By managing our sleep and paying close attention to it, our anxiety levels can decrease dramatically. Sleep allows our brains to recharge and rid of the thoughts and stress levels that are strongly impacting all aspects of our health.


Many college administrators are in favor of dropping the SAT and ACT as an admission requirement and a growing number of universities have dropped the test due its role in contributing to inequities in higher education. Research shows the tests are better at demonstrating a family’s income, race, the test-takers’ parents’ educational level, and the student’s ability to take tests — rather than the potential of the test-taker’s ability to succeed and thrive at college. Ditching the SAT would remove the pressure of having one test dictate a student’s future, encourage a more holistic look at potential students, and assist in increasing diversity.

ADDRESS Debt's Psychic Burden

During the 2018-19 academic year, about a quarter of the students who came into counselling checked off “financial” as one of their sources of concern, says Cory Wallack, Ph.D., Syracuse University’s executive director of health and wellness. That concern informs immediate issues and long-term ones. Marks agrees that financial stress adds a great deal of mental anguish to many students’ daily lives. He says that he has students come in to talk to him all the time, and one of their main stressors is the fact that they cannot support themselves financially on top of all of the other factors of being a college student. “Students usually have a part-time job to keep up with their finances,” he says. “It’s that piece also that means they have to balance work and school and their various activities so there’s a lot on their plate that can be hard to balance, causing more stress.”

The student-loan-debt crisis now stands at $1.6 trillion, which means about 45 million students have graduated with debt. What cannot be quantified is how detrimental this burden is to the students’ mental health. Not only does the financial burden take a toll during the four years of college, but the burden of that debt in post-graduation years only causes more stress. Ted Klonz, Ph.D., associate professor of practice of financial psychology and behavioral finance at Creighton University, a private Jesuit University in Omaha, Neb., says that human beings tend to go into a state of denial and tend to not pay attention to their situation because there’s nothing they can do about it. But he says that at some point, denial has its consequences. “Whatever a person does to manage their anxiety, they’ll tend to do more of it,” he says. “Whether there’s the use of alcohol or other drugs to numb themselves so they don’t have to worry so much.” And it’s not just the debt itself. “Part of it is about student debt but the other part is, ‘When I graduate, what’s my marketability, what’s the job outlook?’,” Wallack adds. “Depending on what someone’s degree program is, which college they’re graduating from, the network varies tremendously in terms of opportunity when you leave here.”

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PUT EMOTIONS 101 on the Schedule of Classes

Universities seek to teach and foster curiosity, inquiry, and intelligence; yet few schools develop their students’ emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence (EQ) is marked by the capacity to identify, manage, and express one’s emotions in a controlled manner. “Precisely because many of the psychological issues that college students face are contextual rather than simply individual, colleges and universities should not simply relegate psychological counseling to a separate office, set off from the academic heart of the university,” wrote Mintz for Inside Higher Ed. “All students, not just those who meet with a counselor or therapist, are going through a host of psychological upheavals during their college years. Institutions need to figure out how best to meet those needs at scale.” Increased emotional intelligence can be beneficial in both preventing and managing mental-health concerns as well as cultivating overall wellness — particularly in our increasingly digitized age, when it’s critical to develop EQ skills to appropriately manage and react to the influx of information. Although colleges are meant to prepare students for real-world experiences, most schools miss the mark by failing to value and teach the importance of EQ. By not teaching those skills, colleges fail to prepare their students for the real world, which requires more than knowing how to do a job.

“All students, not just those who meet with a counselor or therapist, are going through a host of psychological upheavals during their college years. Institutions need to figure out how best to meet those needs at scale.”

Babson College, a private business school in Babson Park, Mass., is among the short list of universities that teach emotional intelligence. The school offers an elective, non-credit course in emotional intelligence, entitled Grit and Resiliency. The six-week program teaches students life skills that include how to deal with everyday stress and anxiety, how to expect and handle adversity, and how to be more reflective and intentional and to prioritize self-care. “We really try to build skills and resources for students to utilize so that they are better equipped to have perhaps a higher EQ,” says Ryan Travia, associate dean of students for wellness at Babson College. “But also to equip them with the tools through a skill-based learning experience to be able to overcome if not just manage adversity, and to learn to embrace failure and to really look at it as a learning opportunity and not the end, but rather the beginning.”

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PRIORITIZE Mental Wellness Over Academic Success

When Wallack wants to emphasize the important role mental health plays in a student’s success in college, he points to research that highlights that how students rate their mental health on the first day of college serves as a better predictor of their academic success than students’ SAT scores, high-school GPA, or the number of AP credits under their belts. He also identifies other academic realities that create stress for students: programs that require freshmen to take more than 15 credits, rigid course sequencing that fails to allow for any indecision or break, and the emphasis on leadership development. “Somewhere along the way, we lost the idea that it’s O.K. to be average, that if you’re in the School of Visual and Performing Arts, and you didn’t make it into Broadway, that you somehow weren’t a thought leader in the field,” Wallack says. “So there’s these language terms that we use that place phenomenal amounts of expectation and pressure on our students, and then we step back like, ‘Ah! You’re so stressed out! What are you anxious for?’”

To prioritize and signal the importance of mental health, some universities have begun to use wellness scores to help students track their mental health and provide apps to help students manage anxiety and stress and access support when it’s needed. Wellness assessments are tools created by universities to allow students to assess their health based on the dimensions of wellness. These dimensions include emotional, physical, environmental, and spiritual. (Begin this process with The 61% Project’s assessment tool, which was created with the help of several experts.) After taking these assessments, students are then able to reflect on which dimensions they are confident with and which need some more attention. “It’s helpful because it starts conversations between our students,” says Michaela Martin, the assistant director for the Student Life Wellness Center at Ohio State University. “So even if they don’t necessarily utilize these resources, they’re taking the wellness assessment and talking to their friends about it, talking about their scores, and just opening up that conversation about mental health and wellness in general.”

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Active Minds is a national organization that seeks to improve the mental health and well-being of college students. With more than 800 campuses, it reaches close to 600,000 students through campus awareness campaigns, events, advocacy, and outreach. In addition to a 550-plus strong network of student advocates, Active Minds’ programs include an award-winning suicide prevention exhibit, a curated group of professional presenters, and the Healthy Campus Award, which honors colleges that are prioritizing student well-being. They also offer a crisis text line that provides free, 24/7 support from anywhere in the United States and abotu any type of crisis. Text BRAVE to 741-741.

View a complete list of resources.