14 Dec 2 Summary of Mental Health and Wellbeing Challenges Sofia Triliva
Desk research conducted by the EMBRACE HE team yielded findings from international empirical studies focusing on Higher Education Student (HES) mental health and wellbeing. The mental health and adjustment challenges that HES are confronting have been referred to as “a mental health crisis” (Chen, Stevens, Wong, & Liu 2019), “the crisis in higher education” (Hubble & Bolton, 2020) and “a crisis in paradise” (Blum, 2016). In turn, Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are facing an unprecedented demand for counseling services and change in the teaching-learning realm of academic life.
International empirical research outlines how approximately one-third of college freshmen from eight countries including Australia, Belgium, Germany, Mexico, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Spain, and the United States experience diagnosable levels of anxiety, mood, and substance abuse problems (Auerbach et al., 2018). In a narrative review article focusing on the impacts of academic stress on HES’s mental health, academic performance, and wellbeing Pascoe, Hetrick, & Parker (2020) report that students from 72 countries are affected in their learning capacity, mental distress, sleep, and substance abuse. HES are burdened with increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depression (Ballester, et al., 2020; Karyotaki et al., 2020). They oftentimes confront difficulties in their attempts to cope, navigate, and embrace the responsibilities involved in tertiary education (Goodman, 2017; Xiao et al., 2017). The most frequent concerns that bring students to the counseling centers include anxiety, followed by depression, stress, trauma, interpersonal functioning / relationship problems, family issues, suicidal ideation and attempts, academic difficulties and pressure, sleep problems, social isolation, and adjustment to new environment (LeViness, Bershad, Gorman, Braun & Murray, 2018; Pérez-Rojas et al., 2017). Other challenges include mood instability, eating/ body image concerns, sexual concerns, self-esteem, attention/ concentration difficulties, identity development, financial difficulties, career decisions, worries about future job security, test-taking anxiety, and family issues (Center for Collegiate Mental Health, 2020).
It is also important to note that mental health issues in higher education are acerbated by social challenges including the pressure and the way in which student performance is evaluated, the student as a consumer approach to HE and the high tuition fees in some countries or universities that cause some students to face financial difficulties and many to be unable to begin or finish their university studies (Zimas, 2015). University students’ wellbeing can be impacted by a range of factors including financial stresses and the stress of meeting academic expectations and assessments, leading them to be at higher risk of mental health problems (McCloud, & Bann, 2018). These issues highlight the contradiction between the social purpose and the scope of higher education. Across 13 European countries there are differences regarding how HE is conceptualized vis-à-vis public good (Boyadjieva & Illieva-Trichkova, 2019). Since the discourse on the quality of education was established, contemporary universities have had neoliberal systems that reinforce the social exclusion of students and create pressure to prioritize the acquisition of labels of excellence at the expense of social purposes (Mampaey, 2017). This is evidenced by the high costs of university tuition, which leads the British government to define students as consumers (Bunce, Baird & Jones, 2016). In addition, admission criteria exclude people who do not have excellent academic performance or economic solvency. The way students are assessed through excellence and quality creates a pressure that contributes to stress levels and mental health problems for students. It is therefore important to question how the higher education system is designed and how it can be a source of discomfort for students’ mental health and social exclusion. The challenges cited above have been exacerbated and have taken on a new urgency during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic which has gravely impacted both HES’s mental and financial well-being and the Higher Education Institutions’ funding.
PODCAST: Challenges and debates
All the issues outlined in the research cited above have impacted HEIs, and they are facing an unprecedented demand for counseling services. Nevertheless, although students report high levels of anxiety and depression and other mental health challenges, according to Shea, Wong, Nguyen, & Gonzalez (2019), there are barriers to seeking help in HE settings. These include the negative perceived value of counseling or psychotherapy, uneasiness in dealing with emotions, stigma, lack of awareness or knowledge on mental health issues, access delays, and cultural barriers. Similar barriers were found by Nash, Sixbey, An, & Puig (2017), who also report that disengagement and multiple stressors also constitute obstacles to help-seeking. Moreover, stigma continues to be a barrier for students with disabilities impeding their chances of fitting in (Bogart, Logan, Hospodar, & Woekel, 2019).