“A societal petri dish to create mental health challenges”: Read an excerpt from Improving Learning and Mental Health in the College Classroom, a new book in our higher education series

We’re pleased to share an excerpt from Improving Learning and Mental Health in the College Classroom, a new book by Robert Eaton, Steven V. Hunsaker, and Bonnie Moon. The latest title in West Virginia’s series Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, edited by James Lang and Michelle Miller, it ships now when ordered from our site.

If a group of malicious social scientists were designing a societal petri dish to create mental health challenges, they would be hard pressed to come up with anything more effective than the US higher education system. For starters, consider the timing: students traditionally embark on their college experience during the very period in life when most mental health challenges initially manifest themselves, with nearly 75 percent of lifelong mental health challenges emerging by the midtwenties.

On top of that, many college students leave home and their established networks of support, often for the first time. Such disruption might unsettle the most emotionally seasoned among us, let alone eighteen-year-olds. “The college years are a period of often intense anxiety about belonging: Do I fit in?” observes Paul Tough in The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us. “Can people like me feel at home here?”

For many students, such feelings of self-doubt are most intense during the first year at college. And for first-generation students and students from underrepresented identity groups, such feelings can be exacerbated by doubts about belonging at their university. Michelle Obama describes how she felt when moving from the South Side of Chicago to Princeton University: “It was jarring and uncomfortable, at least at first, like being dropped into a strange new terrarium, a habitat that hadn’t been built for me.”

Alexis McKee is a first-generation college student who also happens to be our research assistant for this book. We knew she was incredibly capable, meticulous, reliable, and hardworking—and that she was interested in mental health issues and had a goal of becoming a teacher. But until this book was in its final stages, we had no idea about the extent that anxiety had affected her life and transition to college. She gave us permission to share her story, including her name.

Alexis has dealt with anxiety for as long as she can remember. In fact, when her third-grade teacher taught the students about anxiety and then told them it was a “sometimes feeling, not an all-the-time feeling,” Alexis remembers laughing and becoming a bit confused. “The feeling we learned about was something that I experienced almost constantly. By the time I was a junior in high school, I had been in therapy for several years, tried almost every [antidepressant drug] available, and missed far more school than I should have. I felt alone.”

Neither of her parents attended college, but Alexis dreamed of becoming a teacher and knew she’d need a college degree to fulfill that dream. Visiting potential colleges brought new anxieties for Alexis: “I felt out of place. This was uncharted territory for my family. I honestly did not know if I would be able to survive college. I am shy, horribly shy. I hide in grocery stores from people I know so that I don’t have to make small talk. How could I possibly make it in a place where you have to create a second family?”

Alexis’s anxiety about embarking on the college experience may have been more intense than most students’, but it was far from unique. During this season of emotional vulnerability, students embark on an educational experience that feels to many of them like a high-risk, high-stakes competition—one that in all likelihood will have a profound impact on the rest of their life. In Tough’s incisive critique about the power of the college years to make or break entire lives, he notes, “Young adults who didn’t have a college degree were almost four times more likely to be living in poverty as those who did. The unemployment rate for Americans with only a high school degree was double the rate for Americans with a bachelor’s degree. . . . It sometimes felt as though the country was splitting into two separate and unequal nations, with a college diploma the boundary that divided them.”

Not many college students are aware of precisely how dramatic the difference is between the economic futures of the average college graduate and others, but most sense they are engaging in a perilous rite of passage that—justifiably or not—results either in some kind of lifelong societal stamp of approval or an irrevocable status of failure. About 40 percent of students who begin the journey toward a bachelor’s degree will fail to earn it within six years. For those who attend open-enrollment institutions (like most community colleges), the odds of finishing the race are even lower: 69 percent fail to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. The odds are worse still for low-income, first-generation college students: 89 percent leave without a degree.

Even those high-achieving students who earned stellar grades in high school often bump up against new kinds of disappointments in college. Some who easily earned good grades in high school are slammed by the need to spend much more time studying outside of class. Others discover that hard work alone had often guaranteed good grades in high school but that it’s not always the case in college. These realizations can rock the foundation of even the most apparently healthy, success-bound, new college student. For perfectionists, the changes can be devastating.

“Our students are in one of the most highly uncertain times in their lives, filled with novel experiences that they haven’t yet developed the tools to manage and thrown into a new environment with entirely new people and new systems they don’t yet understand,” observes Sarah Rose Cavanagh in The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. “Moreover, they are also in a time of life in which they are beginning and ending romantic liaisons with greater frequency than at any other time of life. Our students, in essence, are simmering in a giant vat of emotional soup.” In short, if college were proposed as a grand, randomized experiment, few institutional review boards would dare approve it, given the risks to the participants.

Given the magnitude of what’s at stake, it’s not surprising that the impact of mental health on college students has been the subject of a growing body of research. However, relatively little of this research derives from the social sciences, let alone focuses on the role teachers can play in helping students better cope with mental health challenges. In a fascinating bibliometric analysis of tens of thousands of articles written about mental health and college students, professor, teaching, classrooms, mentoring, and coursework are not among the terms that appeared twenty-five times or more in this vast body of literature. In other words, teachers—arguably the most important asset an institution has in helping students with mental health challenges—have been largely overlooked.

Read more in Improving Learning and Mental Health in the College Classroom, available now from West Virginia University Press.

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