Student Mental Health

[Content advisory: Please note that some of the material on this page may cause distress for some readers.]

Mental health disorders, from anxiety and depression to dependency on alcohol and opioids, are an increasing challenge for American society. Today’s college students face a mental health epidemic as they leave home for the first time at an age of life common for the onset of mental illness. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated an already serious crisis. The Sophie Fund seeks to raise awareness about the mental health challenges faced by students in the belief that breaking down stigma and improving policies and practices will support students’ successful life trajectories.

A Parent’s Guide to College Student Mental Health

Sending children off to college is an exciting experience for many parents. Naturally, our focus is on the wonderful opportunities they will have, as we look with pride upon their promising passage into adulthood. But these stressful times require parents to also fully grasp the serious mental health challenges their students may face, and be equipped to provide support.

DOWNLOAD: A Parent’s Guide to College Student Mental Health (PDF)

Though some may hide or downplay it, college creates a load of stressors for many young people including those whose identities are partly formed around past outstanding achievement. Rates of depression and anxiety are high among college students. In fact, many students carry suicidal thoughts. Sexual assault is prevalent among college students. Hazing violence as an initiation rite at fraternities and some student organizations is a serious problem.

In short, many parents cannot imagine that the happy and excited kid that they dropped off at the campus dorm could develop a serious mental health problem while at college. Yet, failure to understand the realities of college student life today, and help with challenges that may arise, can lead to serious consequences.

A Brief Guide to Student Mental Health Advocacy

Student advocates play a critical role in improving mental health policies and practices. The Sophie Fund presents A Brief Guide to Student Mental Health Advocacy, to highlight useful facts and figures, key advocacy goals, resources on student rights, and campus mental health best practices.


Key Advocacy Goals

  • Comprehensive review of campus policies and practices to identify gaps and make recommendations for improvement
  • Full alignment of Counseling and Psychological Services staffing levels with student need for services
  • Current best practices for mental health treatment and suicide prevention
  • Campus-wide culture promoting help-seeking behavior and providing support for student mental health
  • Health Leave of Absence policy prioritizing student interests, needs, and well-being

Facts About Student Mental Health

  • 43.8 million American adults—18.5 percent of the population—are experiencing mental illness in a given year, and 75 percent of mental illness cases begin by age 24, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people aged 15-24 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • 46.8 percent of college students surveyed reported that academics have been “traumatic or very difficult to handle,” and 39.3 percent “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function,” according to the 2017 National College Health Assessment; 12.1 percent seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months, and 1.9 percent had attempted suicide.
  • 35.8 percent of surveyed college students seeking counseling in the 2017-18 academic year had “seriously considered attempting suicide” (up from 24 percent in the 2010-11 academic year), according to Center for Collegiate Mental Health 2018 Annual Report; 10.3 percent of the students seeking counseling had actually made a suicide attempt.
  • 52 percent of students seeking counseling presented with “severe” psychological problems, up from 16 percent in 2000 and 44 percent in 2010, according to the 2014 National Survey of College Counseling Centers.
  • In a campus-specific study, Cornell University’s 2017 Perceptions of Undergraduate Life and Student Experiences (PULSE) Survey of 5,001 undergraduates reported that 71.6 percent of respondents often or very often felt “overwhelmed,” and 42.9 percent said that they had been unable to function academically for at least a week on one or more occasions due to depression, stress, or anxiety. Nearly 10 percent of respondents reported being unable to function during a week-long period on five or more occasions. Nine percent of the respondents—about 450 students—reported “having seriously considered suicide at least once during the last year,” and about 85 students reported having actually attempted suicide at least once in the last year.
  • 13.5 percent of female seniors participating in the Association of American Universities 2015 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct reported being raped (“experiencing nonconsensual penetration involving physical force or incapacitation”) since enrolling in college; only 37.4 percent of undergraduate female students felt it was very likely or extremely likely that campus officials would take action against perpetrators of sexual assault or sexual misconduct.

Mental Health and Student Rights

The Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law

Organization providing valuable resources in support of student mental health, including:

Campus Mental Health

Policy documents; materials concerning legal action on mental health.

Campus Mental Health: Know Your Rights

A guide for students who want to seek help for mental illness or emotional distress

The Law Office of Karen Bower

Legal firm operated by a former senior staff attorney at the Bazelon Center, focused on assisting students with a mental illness who have been charged with disciplinary action, have been placed on suspension or involuntary leave of absence, or have been denied reasonable accommodations.

“Legal and Ethical Issues in College Mental Health,” by Karen Bower

Active Minds

Active Minds campus chapters raise mental health awareness, educate faculty and students, support peers, and advocate for better services and policies.

National Alliance on Mental Illness on Campus

NAMI campus clubs raise mental health awareness, educate faculty and students, support peers, and advocate for better services and policies.

Suicide Prevention and Resource Center

Colleges and Universities

Task Force Reports and Other Resources

Report of the Task Force on Managing Student Mental Health July 2020, Harvard University

Mental Health Review Final Report April 2020, Cornell University

Task Force on Student Mental Health and Well-being, Office of the Provost, February 2018, Johns Hopkins University

The State of Student Mental Health on College and University Campuses with a Specific Assessment of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities Campus, 2016, The Provost’s Committee on Student Mental Health, University of Minnesota

Mental Health Committee Report 2016, Ryerson University

White Paper on Postsecondary Student Mental Health 2015, Coordinating Committee of Vice Presidents Students of Colleges Ontario

Student Psychological Wellbeing at McGill University: A report of findings from the 2012 and 2014 Counselling and Mental Health Benchmark Study, McGill University

Supporting Students: A Model Policy for Colleges and Universities

The JED Campus Program Framework, The Jed Foundation

A Guide to Campus Mental Health Action Planning, The Jed Foundation and EDC, Inc.

Standards for University and College Counseling Services, International Association of Counseling Services, Inc.

A Guide for Parents and Families: Supporting Your College Student Through Mental Health Challenges, Forefront Suicide Prevention

Guide to Student Mental Health Advocacy

Click on booklet to download Brief Guide to Student Mental Health Advocacy PDF