A global pandemic, economic uncertainty and racial injustice have all contributed to an overall decline in mental health across the country and globe in recent years, studies have shown. And according to a new report, co-authored by Cal State Long Beach professor Lindsay Pérez Huber, students on college campuses are mirroring that trend.

“Degrees of Distress: How Higher Education Institutions Hurt and Help Student Mental Health,” commissioned by College Futures Foundation and written by Pérez Huber and UC San Diego professor Sam Museus, explores how college students, particularly students from marginalized groups, are impacted by mental health challenges, and the role that higher education institutions can play in both helping and harming mental wellness.

The report cites one particularly poignant statistic: In 2021, about 60% of college students reported experiencing at least one mental health challenge that year.

“That statistic was really striking, because it shows that the vast majority, or a large portion of our college students, are experiencing mental health challenges,” Pérez Huber said.

When examining the way that higher education institutions play a role in perpetuating these challenges, there were a couple of key findings: “One is that institutions by their design, by their competitive and individualistic cultures, can promote social isolation,” Pérez Huber said.

Although it is a common experience for college students in general to experience feelings of not belonging particularly while transitioning into a college environment, students of color, who oftentimes are coming into predominantly white institutions, are disproportionately impacted, said Pérez Huber.

Even students at institutions such as Cal State Long Beach, for instance, which serves many students of color, can still find that the school “prioritizes dominant culture,” Pérez Huber said.

“This sense of not belonging is a very common experience for many students of color, even when they’re in institutions where they see a lot of students around like them,” she said.

Students of color typically do not see their experiences reflected in college curriculums unless they are taking an ethnic studies or gender studies course, and oftentimes do not see professors who look like them, Pérez Huber said.

Of course, other societal issues have exacerbated the sense of isolation many college students are experiencing, according to the report.

After the uprisings around racial conflict in the summer of 2020 in which people demanded a recognition of racism, anti-Blackness, and white supremacy, students entering higher education are still trying to grapple with what that means, Pérez Huber said.

Plus, there are the everyday experiences of racism on campuses, and more subtle experiences such as racial microaggressions, which can “take a psychological and physiological toll on students who experience those as a daily part of their campus cultures and experiences,” Pérez Huber said.

Nationally, the privatization of higher education has had an impact on students’ wellbeing and has led to economic performance measures of student success, which focuses on how quickly students graduate, what kinds of jobs they get, and other “return on investment” measures, rather than focusing on meaningful experiences students can have, and the opportunities they’re exposed to, Pérez Huber explained.

Apart from that, financial precarity is “a huge issue” for college students, particularly as the gap in working class and affluent groups have drastically increased over the past couple of decades in the U.S., adding to increased anxiety, stress and mental health challenges.

Many who enter higher education don’t have the financial resources to pay for it.  “They’re leaving college with tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt, depending on what university they attended,” Pérez Huber said.

Some students are coming into college not only unable to afford tuition, but without having their basic needs met—which could mean not having housing, food, or other necessities, Pérez Huber added.

While schools typically have services available for struggling students, complex bureaucracies in higher education can create barriers to accessing resources, the report details.

For example, many institutions can have a relatively small counseling staff serving a campus of thousands of students, making initial and then consistent access a barrier, Pérez Huber said.

Despite the negative impact that colleges and universities can sometimes play when it comes to students’ mental health, on the flipside, they can be a powerful tool for positively impacting mental health as well, the report found.

While the report frames mental health as a systemic problem, rather than an individual problem facing students, mental health is typically discussed outside of student success, rather than being seen as an institutional responsibility, said Pérez Huber.

“The first step is to really recognize that institutions play a role in the harm that can be done,” Pérez Huber said, “so they must have a responsibility also for the positive mental health outcomes of their student populations.”

Culturally relevant mental health services, and creating more of a tenure track or opportunity for long-term counselor positions (which are oftentimes temporary), can help affirm college students—but ultimately, it will take looking beyond just counseling programs to becoming a campus-wide effort, in order to make meaningful change, according to Pérez Huber.

Higher education institutions have the power to create structures and spaces of affirmation— through everyday forms of validation that acknowledge the integrity and identity of students of color, a concept known as racial micro-affirmations, Pérez Huber explained.

“The concept of racial micro-affirmations has been helpful in allowing us to think about what are the ways that an institution can acknowledge the assets of our students, of their origin communities, of their cultures, and to really allow them to feel like they are valued …  that we, as an institution of higher education, are really fortunate to have students on campus from diverse backgrounds,” Pérez Huber said.

Particularly since the pandemic, which has exacerbated so many challenges and has had lasting impacts on mental health, institutions need to recognize the urgency of the issue, Pérez Huber said.

“If we’re going to really talk about student success—and include student wellbeing as a part of student success—we also have to be looking upward at the systemic forces that influence the experiences of our students in mental health and in other aspects of their of their lives as well,” Pérez Huber said, “and that is to understand student wellbeing as integral to student success, that we’re not just focused on the kind of academic meanings of success, that we’re really interested in the ability for students to thrive both academically and personally.”