As students prepare to enter into the system of higher education, they are faced with unprecedented issues. A looming pandemic with new variants, cultural shifts, civil unrest, and more are looming over their heads as they navigate new chapters of life. It’s been generally understood that pursuing a college degree is no small feat. One’s mental health will be tested as it’s never been tested before. But it’s time to get real about the mental health crisis that researchers have warned us about. We’re in uncharted territory, with little visible plans. 

According to The Healthy Minds Study, 40% of American college students experienced at least one major depressive episode that year. 80% of college students reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health in a survey performed by Active Minds. The COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone in doors and in a state of concern. Students were asked to go home and participate in distance learning. 

This resulted in self-care routines taking a devastating hit. According to Active Minds, 76% of students have trouble maintaining a routine, 73% struggle to get adequate physical activity and 63% find it challenging to connect with others. Without adequate exercise or a sense of community, what can we expect of college students? The boom of social media usage allowed students to express just how overwhelmed they are. It was our only means to participate in a community for some time. Social media also was the backbone for many social movements experienced in our time. 

The murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor placed the discussion around the value of Black life at the forefront. Not only are Black students having to navigate a looming pandemic with impending assignments; but, now they are also tasked with having difficult conversations about institutionalized racism inside and outside of the classroom.

Mental health is not a new concern among college students; but, we are entering an age of transparency. In 2010, the National Survey of Counseling Center Directors reported 44% of their clients having severe psychological problems. In 2000, they reported 16%. These numbers may appear daunting but imagine how many students didn’t feel safe enough to report their concerns in 2000. Imagine how rigid the stigma around mental health was. 

Students of color weren’t even able to recognize the intersection of mental health and systemic racism in the way that we can now. Intersections were not even recognized until the mid-2000s, let alone researched. 

We’re able to have these conversations about the running list of issues that affect our mental wellbeing but we always end up asking the same question. What now?

The answer is complex and requires effort from every community, generation, and governing body. However, this ultimately boils down to transparency. We have to make mental health a regular topic of conversation. No one silences the person who screams when they’ve sustained a bodily injury. So, why are we silencing people who recognize that they’re struggling mentally?

Throw out strength-based narratives such as “the strong Black woman” and “emotionless men.” Black women are strong but they are also soft, caring, and whatever they decide to be. They deserve to be heard in every way. Men, there is no strength in denying your emotions. Transparency isn’t weakness but a faith-based act of courage. It is okay to not be okay. 

This also means playing an active role in the lives of people you care about. Be an active friend, family member, partner, etc. If you’ve noticed your classmate feeling sluggish, invite them to come to the Student Recreation Center with you. Ask your friend if they want to go get lunch somewhere after class. Let someone do the same for you. 

This can clearly translate into academic practices. Office hours with professors aren’t only reserved for test review. Approach them if you need help handling the semester. Many are open and willing to work with students.

Institutions, be more active and accountable in the role you play in this issue. We can’t give out t-shirts and stress balls in student centers while trying to force an unworkable course load with little to no resources on many students across the country. Understand that accessible education and healthy wellbeing practices means placing the student before the profits. Counseling centers need more funding and overall backing. We have to treat them as necessary landmarks on a student’s journey to education. This long-standing concern will always seem like an unconquerable mountain, if institutions insist on sitting at the top while peering down at the rest of us. 

The relationship between good mental health and success in higher education has always been a contentious one. Transparency is not just a want but an absolute need if we are ever going to see true progress.