Despite Rise in Mental Health Issues, College Students Aren’t Getting Help

student using cell phone in college dorm room
monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images

The end of high school can be a stressful time.

And the transition from high school to college? That can be even scarier.

The last few months before graduation are a jumble of grades and finals and applications and forms and goodbyes and financial worries that just won’t quit.

Add to that the (looming threat? promise?) of a new city, a new living situation, new friends, new structures and schedules, new jobs and new expectations, and it can be a really scary time for even the most prepared and supported young person. (Don’t get me wrong: These things are also exciting and fun and open so many doors — but that doesn’t mean they’re not intimidating.)

And for those who don’t get the support they need? The transition can be really, really difficult.

Truthfully, even if you have a great support system, important things often fall through the cracks — and unfortunately, it seems that one of those things is mental health.

Teens’ Mental Health May Be Being Overlooked

A recent survey from WebMD/Medscape and The JED Foundation says that while teens are more stressed and anxious than they have been in the past, parents are still sending them off to college with little or no focus on their mental health.

Of the more than 500 health care professionals involved in the survey, 86% said that in the last five years, they’ve seen an uptick in signs of anxiety and stress in teens. Eighty-one percent said they’ve seen more anxiety disorders in their teen patients, while 70% reported seeing more mood disorders like bipolar disorder and depression.

Of the parents who took the survey, 45% said their child had been diagnosed or treated for a mental health issue, substance abuse problem or learning disorder. Fifty-one percent said that their child had seen a therapist at some point.

Still, only 17% of the parents surveyed said they took mental health services and on-campus counseling into account when considering schools for their teen.

Even among the parents of teens with an anxiety, mood or stress disorder, only 28% said they had given any thought to the mental health care at their teen’s future school.

A Rise in Teens With Mental Health Problems

The college years are a critical point for mental health, with about 75% of all mental health conditions starting by the age of 24.

“College presents… sort of a perfect storm,” says Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, PhD, director of the College Mental Health Program at McLean Hospital on WebMD. “You not only have a young person entering the stage where they’re most likely to develop a mental health issue, but you also have a significant amount of stress.”

While the number of teens affected by mental health disorders is on the rise, it’s unclear whether this is due to a higher incidence of mental health problems or simply an openness to talk about them that wasn’t there before, experts say.

But while teens and parents are more open than ever to talking about mental health while the teen is at home, it isn’t quite enough.

“I think it’s a good idea for all parents and students to consider counseling and mental health resources in the pre-application process,” Pinder-Amaker explains.

Make Mental Health a Priority

If you’re a parent to a teen who will soon be going off to college, be sure to look into the mental health care at the universities your child is considering.

Check to see if counseling services are free, how much they cost if they’re not, how long students usually wait to book an appointment, and if there are any limits on how many sessions one student can have.

Then, make sure that your teen knows how to access the help they may need.

Be sure to talk to your teen often and openly about their mental health. Check in to ensure they’re still going to their appointments and make sure they feel they’re getting the help they need.

If you’re a student who is navigating this process on your own, there are plenty of people who are ready and willing to help.

Contact your student health services department to ask about mental health care. You can usually find a contact phone number or email on your school’s website.

Ask about how much the services will cost, and how you should pay for them. Do they offer any free services? If not, does payment have to be taken care of on the day of your appointment? Or can it be added to your tuition bill?

The counselors and medical professionals at the health services center want to help, and they’ll often work with you to create a treatment and payment plan that works for you.

If you don’t have access to student health services or you’d prefer other treatment options, here are nine ways to get free or cheap mental health care — even if you don’t have insurance.

Either way, work to make your mental health a priority. It’s easy to get caught up in college life and forget to take care of yourself, but it’s important to address and treat any mental health problems you may be dealing with.

However you choose to go about it, don’t ignore your mental health.

Grace Schweizer is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder.