Academic Advising Resources


Resources for counseling and mental health issues

Mental Health Issues and College Students: What Advisors Can Do 
Authored By: Ruth Harper and Meghan Peterson

Mental health is clearly linked to retention and academic performance (Backels & Wheeler, 2001). Academic advisors find that mental health issues interfere with student success more than ever before. Young (2004) brought these issues to light in The Chronicle of Higher Education article, 'Prozac Campus.' Today several excellent resources are available to advisors who want to be informed and capable to assist the students who struggle with these problems.
Today, faculty and staff members note that complex and even clinical issues are more prevalent among the students they teach and advise. Kadison & DiGeronimo (2004), in the recent book College of the Overwhelmed: The Campus Mental Health Crisis and What to Do About It, confirm that a rising number of students are coping with depression, anxiety, and other major mental health challenges.
College counseling centers across the country report increased frequency and severity of students' mental health concerns. Two major studies document these observations. AtKansas State University, counseling center staff conducted a retrospective analysis of client problems over 13 years (Benton, Robertson, Tseng, Newton, & Benton, 2003). Corroborating their suspicions, the K-State researchers found a significant increase in student psychopathology in 14 out of 19 areas, e.g., depression, suicidal thoughts, sexual assaults, personality disorders, and the like. Kitzrow (2003) published a literature review related to the mental health needs of today's college students. Citing a survey of directors of college counseling centers, Kitzrow reported that from 1996 - 2001, 85% saw more severe psychological problems. In addition, respondents described more cases of learning disabilities, self-injury incidents, eating disorders, alcohol and drug use, warnings to third parties, and stalking.
Why are students so anxious and depressed? Today's students deal with cross-cultural issues, family dysfunction, poor frustration tolerance, experimentation with drugs and alcohol, and weak interpersonal attachments (Kitzrow, 2003). Greg Kneser, Dean of Students at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, notes that many students lead 'hyper-enriched lives', with their cell phones, computers, classes, jobs, sports, travel, volunteer work, and more (Kneser, 2004); all this is too much to handle for some students.

Academic unreadiness also plays a role. Many college students were awarded superior grades in high school without learning how to study. Each year, the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) asks entering students how much time they spent doing high school homework. Nationally (2002) more than 60% of entering freshmen indicate that that they spent less than six hours per week studying even though 90% earned a high school grade point average of B or higher (Higher Education Research Institute, 2002). Inadequate study habits create enormous stress and anxiety for college students.

What happens once these stressed and often underprepared students experience college? A Web search of the words 'college students,' 'anxiety,' and 'depression' produced over 45,000 hits. 
While many students may have bad days or bad moods, depression is more complex. Silverman (2004) cites a Center for Disease Control (2002) survey which found that depression, to the extent that it interfered with typical daily activities for two or more weeks, was reported by 28.3% of college students. Female students are more likely than male students to experience serious depression (Silverman, 2004). Young (2004) indicates that the rate of depression among college students rose almost five per cent in just the past four years, with 38% of these students on antidepressant medication and over 25% in therapy (p. A37).
Student anxiety is high as well. Nationally, over 25% of college students say they are overwhelmed (Higher Education Research Institute2002). Levine & Cureton (1998) note that 'in general, students are coming to college overwhelmed and more damaged than those of previous years' (p. 95).
Another change noted on college campuses is the number of students entering already taking psychotropic medications. Gallagher, Gill, & Sysko (2000) remark that almost all directors of counseling centers surveyed noted this increase.

What causes these trends? Kadison & DeGeronimo (2004) suggest that in addition to the normal developmental concerns of traditional-aged college students (identity development issues, changes in lifestyle and living arrangements, relationship transitions, etc.), today's students are pressured to get good grades, hold down jobs, and become involved in college life. Coping with the financial realities of a college education is also extremely stressful for many. For some minority, international, first-generation, or immigrant students, college may mean dealing with new forms of discrimination, a lack of role models, family expectations, and challenges in daily living activities.

Are today's students really more disturbed than those in years past? The simple answer is yes, but in addition to a higher occurrence of mental health concerns, other factors may be at play. Silverman (2004) suggests that improved diagnosis, assessment, earlier intervention, and decreased stigma toward mental illness account for some of the increases. These factors may bring students to college who might not previously considered postsecondary education as an option. It also is important to remember that some mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder, have early adult-on-set that will affect this population (DSM-IV-TR, 2000).

Academic advisors should know the signals of distress: (Office of Student Life Studies, 2000)

  • Excessive procrastination
  • Decrease in the quality of work
  • Too frequent office visits (dependency)
  • Listlessness, sleeping in class
  • Marked changes in personal hygiene
  • Impaired speech or disjointed thoughts
  • Threats regarding self or others
  • Marked changes in behavior

Advisors at the NACADA Region 6 conference in Sioux Falls, SD (April 21, 2005) compiled the following additional warning signs:

  • Flat affect (failure to show emotions)
  • Under-responding to academic notice
  • Absence from class
  • Too much or too little time spent in the residence hall 
  • Crying
  • Incongruous affect (smiling while crying)
  • Lack of follow-through
  • Unable to describe own emotions

What can advisors do?  Even though most academic advisors are not professional counselors, they are in positions to notice that a student may be experiencing stress, or something more challenging. Advisors should not attempt to provide therapy to students but should use their excellent communication and observation skills to refer to those who can assist students. Advisors should be well acquainted with the campus mental health counselors (or, if services are community based, know how to refer). While respecting student privacy, advisors can communicate with faculty members or residence life staff about their concerns. General comments regarding a student's sudden change in motivation, for example, can be shared with a hall director although specific information about grades cannot be shared due to FERPA privacy guidelines.

Colleges and universities should have information, such as counseling center location and hours, available to students 24/7 on the institution's website. Clear policies and procedures are absolutely vital. Kitzrow (2003) suggests that all campus personnel take advantage of faculty and staff development opportunities and seek information about working with students who have mental health conditions and/or disabilities. Recognizing and referring students in trouble is one of the very best things advisors can do!

Advisors should be knowledgeable about the student body. Checking the CIRP data for your campus is a great way to spot potential issues e.g., alcohol consumption. For participating colleges, this information is generally available from the institutional research or assessment office.

Advisors must be familiar with institutional resources beyond the counseling center, including such services as TRiO Student Support Services, academic support services, tutoring or mentoring programs, resources for students with disabilities, and health services. Wellness programs can be terrific assets for students struggling with stress!

All of the resources mentioned here can help academic advisors be more effective when working with college students who have mental health challenges. If current trends continue, many more students will enter with mental health concerns. Early intervention, referral to appropriate resources, and supportive academic advising can be crucial to the success of these students.

Authored by:
Ruth Harper
South Dakota State University

Meghan Peterson

Nursing Student Services Coordinator
South Dakota State University


American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mentaldisorders (4th ed.). Washington,DC: Author.

Journal of College Student Development, 42, 2, 173-176.

Benton, S. A., Robertson, J. M., Wen-Chih, T.,Newton, F. B., & Benton, S. L. (2003). Changes in counseling center client problems across 13 years. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 34(1), 66-72.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2001). Surveillance Summaries, June 28,2002, MMWR 2002: 51 (No. SS-4).

Gallagher, R., Gill, A., & Sysko, H. (2000). National survey of counseling center directors. Alexandria, VA: International Association of Counseling Services.

Higher Education Research Institute (2002).  Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP). Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.

Kadison, R. & DiGeronimo, T.F. (2004). College of the overwhelmed: The campus mental health crisis and what to do about it. San Francisco:Jossey-Bass.

Kitzrow, M. A. (2003). The mental health needs of today's college students: Challenges and recommendations. NASPA Journal, 41 (1), 165-179.

Kneser, G. (2004, April). College students leading hyper-enriched lives. St. Olaf E-newsletter

Levine, A., Cureton, S. (1998). When hope and fear collide: A portrait of today's college student. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Office of Student Life Studies. (November, 2002). Noncognitive factors that influence student learning. A Quarterly Summary of Challenges to Student Learning, 4, 1-3. Cape Girardeau, MO: Southeast Missouri State University. 

Silverman, M.M. (2004). College student suicide prevention: Background and blueprint for action. Student Health Spectrum, 13-20.

Young, J. R. (November 30, 2004). Prozac campus. The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. A37-A38.

Cite this using APA style as:

Harper, R. & Peterson, M. (2005). Mental health issues and college students. NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources.Retrieved from 

Posted in: Advising Students
Actions: E-mail | Permalink |
The contents of all material on this Internet site are copyrighted by the National Academic Advising Association, unless otherwise indicated. Copyright is not claimed as to any part of an original work prepared by a U.S. or state government officer or employee as part of that person's official duties. All rights are reserved by NACADA, and content may not be reproduced, downloaded, disseminated, published, or transferred in any form or by any means, except with the prior written permission of NACADA, or as indicated or as indicated in the 'Copyright Information for NACADA Materials' statement. Copyright infringement is a violation of federal law and is subject to criminal and civil penalties. NACADA and National Academic Advising Association are service marks of the National Academic Advising Association.

Index of Topics
Advising Resources

Do you have questions?  Do you need help with an advising topic? 
Email us.