What College Mental Health Services Are There?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated April 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

College can be a stressful time for many students. Being away from home, living in a dorm, socializing, relationships, coursework, and grades are just some of the stressors many college students face. 

Additional stressors such as the COVID-19 pandemic, news of mass violence, illness, social injustice, as well as uncertainty about the future have further contributed to an increase in demand for mental health services in and out of college campuses. Students' concerns are wide-ranging—from adjusting to the college lifestyle, to eating disorders, to interpersonal conflict, to anxiety and depression. This may have led many colleges to expand their offerings, going beyond in-person counseling to introduce or expand group therapy, peer counseling, and teletherapy, among other approaches to wellness.  

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Data on student mental health 

According to data from the Healthy Minds Study, an organization that tracks information from 373 colleges and universities, over 60% of students fit the criteria for at least one mental health condition. In a nationwide study, nearly three quarters of students "reported moderate or severe psychological distress," leading the American Psychological Association (APA) and other organizations to label it a mental health crisis. 

College counseling center directors claim this increase in reported mental health conditions has been on the rise for many years, even before the arrival of the pandemic. Because of this increase, college mental health services have needed to adjust to adapt to the influx of new clients. Some claim that less stigma around mental health care among students might have contributed to the growth, as more people feel comfortable seeking help. Between 2009 and 2015, for example, there was an increase by almost 40% in students reaching out to college counseling centers for help according to a research network of 700 colleges—a figure that has increased further after the pandemic. 

To meet the demand, counseling center directors have reported to the APA that they have had to think creatively to meet the new challenges. With the rise in mental health concerns among students, some centers have been stretched to provide individual counseling to an increasing number of people, adding a tiered approach to meet the specific needs of students. 

Some students, for example, may be encouraged to undergo peer therapy or take a wellness seminar if they are having interpersonal challenges or struggling with adjusting to their new environments. Others experiencing more pressing mental health challenges, such as depression, trauma, sexual abuse, and eating disorders, may be referred to meet one-on-one with a counselor or outside professional. In some universities and colleges, faculty has also received training in how to identify mental health challenges and refer students to services. 

Opportunities for mental health services across racial groups

According to a 2019 study reported by the National Education Association, about two-thirds of college students of all ethnicities have reported feeling "very sad," The same study indicated that about a third of college students felt depressed and it interfered with their ability to function. 

However, more mental health services are used by white or Caucasian students. The Journal of Adolescent Health suggests they are more likely to seek treatment and/or receive mental health services. One of the reasons is thought to be attributed to the disproportionate number of white counselors in relation to non-white counterparts. While half of college students are BIPOC, over 72% of college counselors are white. 

Students' decisions in seeking and choosing a counselor or therapist may be influenced by their perception and previous experience with counseling. Research indicates that BIPOC people may feel more comfortable seeing mental health professionals who have direct experience and understanding of their context

The APA has also issued a public statement apologizing for their role in perpetuating systemic racism, which may have contributed to inequities in opportunity and treatment in the past. 

However, there has been a push for more awareness, and many counselors are now undergoing anti-racist training to build more empathy and address biases and assumptions. 

Mental health conditions reported by college students

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Mental health concerns vary among students. They could include:

  • Disordered eating or eating disorders, such as bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Trauma
  • Sexual abuse
  • Interpersonal conflict
  • Loneliness and low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Mental and emotional exhaustion
  • Substance use disorder

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

Mental health services offered

Since the pandemic, many colleges and universities have widened their approach to mental health services and may now offer programs in different formats—online, hybrid, or in-person. One of the main shifts in the scope of offerings has been the introduction of teletherapy to students, which has been seen as an easier way to pursue therapy. 

Depending on the concern and the college or university, mental health services on campus may include the following options. 

Wellness seminars and workshops 

These are often designed to help students learn new skills in improving overall well-being, including social, personal, and academic spheres. Some schools may also offer workshops in conjunction with group therapy. 

Group therapy 

Group therapy is often aimed at students addressing a particular concern and/or interest under the guidance of a group leader or facilitator. Group therapy may focus on topics such as LGBTQIA+ members and concerns, men's issues, family issues, relationships, or it may encompass a particular wellness approach such as mindfulness.

Peer counseling 

Peer counseling may offer students a way to discuss concerns with trained peers and receive support in navigating various concerns. They can focus on topics such as building healthy relationships, identity, intimate violence, trauma, and physical harassment.

Individual counseling 

In this traditional form of college counseling, students can choose to have individual counseling with one of the school's counselors. This type of counseling is intended to address students' concerns that are affecting their functioning and performance. Modalities such as "brief counseling" may be offered, which is aimed at addressing and resolving a particular problem in the short term.

Individual counseling could also include the following:

  • Outside referral. There are schools offering off-campus referrals with a provider to address specialized services or longer-term treatment
  • Free teletherapy. Some schools are offering (or are in the process of being able to offer) free teletherapy to enrolled students available through chat, video, or phone in order to meet the increased demand for it. Therapy may be available through community colleges as well as universities. 
  • Crisis hotline or text line. Many colleges and universities have a crisis line for students. Services can range from same day crisis services to referrals to national hotlines, such as TREVOR for LGBTQ students or the Crisis Text Line for a range of mental health crises. 

Seeking professional support

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Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been found to be particularly helpful in developing healthy thought and behavioral patterns and reducing symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression, all of which tend to be prominent in college students. If you are experiencing mental health challenges, you might consider contacting your college or university's counseling center or exploring their mental health webpage to discover what resources are available at your school. 

Depending on the school and your particular concern, you may be offered peer counseling, group therapy, individual counseling, teletherapy, a workshop or wellness seminar, or outside referral. Seeing or speaking to a therapist may help you navigate uncomfortable emotions while introducing healthy coping skills when facing challenges.

You may also have the option to receive treatment through online therapy. Online therapy often offers phone, video, or in-app messaging. This can be helpful if you're struggling to meet a deadline while experiencing emotional distress and need someone to contact you as soon as they can. Online therapy platforms can also help match you with a counselor who meets your identity preferences, such as religious, BIPOC, and/or LGBTQIA+. 

Academic health experts have suggested that online therapy can be just as effective as in-person treatment. A study that took place around the COVID-19 period considered face-to-face therapy compared to online therapy for university students and concluded that online therapy was successful in reducing psychological distress related to depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety. Researchers noted this may be due to the fact that many college-aged students are used to this type of technology and experience it similarly to the way they experience face-to-face communications.

Takeaway

In the last few years, there has been a significant increase in demand for college mental health services. Students' concerns are wide-ranging—some may need help adjusting to the college environment and workload while others may experience mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. This may have led many colleges to expand their offerings, going beyond in-person counseling to introduce or expand group therapy, peer counseling, and online or phone therapy, among other approaches to wellness. Online therapy may be an effective and convenient option for college students looking for mental health support.
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