College StudentsThe Importance of Diversity in Higher Education

Diversity on College Campuses

Diversity as a policy and a fundamental core principle is a relatively new issue for our society in the last 25 years, and is one that has dominated educational news at times. And while our culture has always struggled with, and known about the concept of diversity, it has only been in the last couple decades that diversity has evolved into much more than a word, but an entire philosophy complete with training, formal policies, and educational programs.  From rulings on affirmative action in admissions procedures, to the barriers that the cost of a college education presents to poverty-stricken individuals, to the lack of minorities and women studying in the fields of science, math, engineering, and technology, we are constantly reminded of the inequities that people can face because of who they are. To address such issues, colleges and universities must continually examine how diversity impacts their campuses and work to devise programs that make the college experience welcoming and open to all students.

Racial and Ethnic Diversity Increasing on College Campuses

Despite the negative news headlines that highlight problems with diversity in education, college campuses in the United States are growing more diverse with each passing year. Enrollment trends at American colleges and universities over the last two decades show increasing numbers of ethnic minority students (Ukpokodu, 2010). By next year, it is predicted that a healthy majority of college students in the United States will actually be members of a historically underrepresented group, including much larger collegiate populations of American Indians, African Americans, and Asian Americans (Leon, 2010; Ukpokodu, 2010). Such diversity is important because exposure to people of differing races, beliefs and ethnicities is an essential component in developing positive attitudes towards others, as well as fostering a campus environment that is tolerant, accepting, and welcoming to all.

To create a positive climate, colleges and universities have adopted far-reaching policies that strictly prohibit student behaviors that are discriminatory or serve to harass and intimidate others. In the past these policies might have only included statements about race and ethnicity, but recognizing that college campuses are becoming more and more diverse, many colleges have expanded anti-discrimination policies to include political affiliation, gender identity, and religion.

Institutions of higher learning can promote ethnic and racial diversity on campus through various activities that celebrate differences among their students, such as cultural festivals, sensitivity trainings conducted by multicultural specialists, minority scholars in residence, and multicultural events (Ukpokodu, 2010). Much support has also been given for on-campus groups for minorities. These groups provide an immediate support network for students that may have historically faced discrimination or prejudice (Leon, 2010). By encouraging interaction and coexistence between these groups, colleges are able to facilitate relationship building between students who embody dissimilar characteristics, thus promoting diversity amongst disparate racial and ethnic groups.

Colleges and universities also offer a wide variety of culturally based courses to help facilitate acceptance and understanding of different peoples. These classes, which are a required component of students’ studies at some schools, encompass everything from African American literature to world religions to music, art, and languages. Participating in this type of learning promotes better appreciation for world cultures and traditions that are increasingly represented by students on the campuses of the nation’s institutions of higher learning.

Expanding Diversity Policies and Philosophy To Include Mental Health

When thinking about diversity, race, religion and gender are frequently the only characteristics taken into account. But diversity on college campuses should also include students with a physical disability or mental health condition. While the needs of physically disabled students are met through various means, including accessibility accommodations in classrooms and other learning environments, mentally ill students may not receive the supports they need to be successful, even though some mental illnesses are afforded the same protections as physical disabilities under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

For example, students with a mental illness represent a very large percentage of the overall college student population, yet there are very few colleges and universities that have student-led social and support groups for the mentally ill. Two of the most popular organizations that support student mental health, Active Minds and NAMI on Campus, still only have approximately 680 chapters combined in the United States and Canada (Active Minds, 2014; NAMI on Campus, 2014). With nearly 4,600 degree-granting institutions of higher learning in the U.S. (NCES, 2012) and hundreds more in Canada, it’s evident that more support is needed for students who have daily struggles with mental health.

Mental Illness Among College Students

Going off to college can be an exciting and fun time, with hopes and dreams for the future that include thoughts about a career, having a family, and making a positive impact on the world. College students are exposed to new ideas, meet all kinds of new people, and get to experience a level of independence many did not typically enjoy as a high school student. Yet the transition from attending high school and living at home with one’s family to the increased academic rigor of college courses and living on one’s own can be a difficult adjustment for some students to make. These stressors can sometimes lead to mental health issues such as depression or anxiety.

Mental Illness Becoming More Common for College Students

More and more college students today enter their higher education experience already having a significant mental health issue. A 2012 survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found significant numbers of students diagnosed with a diagnosable disorder: Over one-quarter of respondents had depression, 24% had bipolar disorder or dysthymia, 11% had some form of anxiety, 6% had schizophrenia, and 5% had ADHD. Reports of eating disorders, self-harm, and substance abuse issues are on the rise as well (American Psychological Association [APA], 2011; Wood, 2012). Less common mental health issues are also becoming more frequently reported among college students, including Asperger’s syndrome and Tourette’s syndrome, while reports of more common conditions like depression and anxiety have increased threefold and twofold respectively (Wood, 2012).

The influx of students that arrive in college with a mental illness has been documented extensively. In a 2013 survey of college counseling center directors, 88% of respondents reported an uptick in the number of students arriving on campus that require medication to regulate a mental illness. In that same survey, 95% of counseling center directors reported a continuing trend of treating an increased number students with severe psychological problems including psychiatric medication issues, self-injury, alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders, and psychological crises (Gallagher, 2013).

There are numerous reasons for the increasing numbers of mentally ill students. It is becoming more acceptable to disclose a mental illness, therefore more people are seeking out help. Certain disorders have also become more common over the years, particularly those in the autism spectrum, which now impact one in 88 children in the United States (Longtin, 2014). Youth and adolescents are receiving improved care in primary and secondary school as well. With counseling and other supportive services, students with a learning disability, mood disorder, or obsessive compulsive disorder that would not have been able to attend college and be successful just a few years ago are now able to do so (Kruisselbrink-Flatt, 2013).

Diversity Tree

Stressors Lead to Anxiety and Depression

Even students who arrive on campus without an existing mental illness are particularly susceptible to developing anxiety and depression (Van Pelt, 2013). Research by Wood (2012) reveals that 45% of female college students and 36% of male college students have problems with daily functioning due to depression, while the incidence of anxiety has increased by nearly 60% among male and female college students. These conditions can often arise as a result from the stressors associated with life as a newly independent young adult in college.

Academic pressure is often cited as one of the most significant stressors that college students experience (Kruisselbrink-Flatt, 2013). In a highly competitive and globalized workforce, students place a great deal of emphasis on achievement in order to put their best foot forward to potential employers. Other common sources of stress include:

  • Feelings of isolation and loneliness, particularly in the first few weeks of school;
  • Living away from one’s family for the first time;
  • Increased responsibilities regarding time management and decision-making;
  • Financial burdens related to attending college;
  • Difficulties making new friends or developing romantic relationships.

Stigma on College Campuses

Stigma regarding mental illness has deep roots in the social and cultural structure of society. The struggle between acceptance and fear of mental illness on college campuses is reflective of the greater population’s attitudes and beliefs. On the one hand, public perception of mental illness does seem to be shifting towards a more accepting point of view. Whereas Americans in the 1950s viewed mental illness as something that people should be able to control, today those attitudes, although still present to some degree, have given way to a more sophisticated neurobiological understanding of the causes of mental illness. Rather than viewing someone with depression as an individual who chooses to be unhappy, or misunderstanding a person with alcoholism as “just a drunk,” the general public has a better understanding that these all-too-common disorders are heavily influenced by environment, genetics, and chemical imbalances in the brain (Pescosolido, 2013). As a result of improved understanding of causal factors of mental illness, individuals are more likely to self-disclose the presence of a mental disorder today than they were just two decades ago.

Room for Growth

On the other hand, stigma still remains, particularly as the severity of the psychological issue increases. Research by Pescosolido (2013) reveals that survey respondents are far more willing to live next door to or socialize with a person with depression than they are with someone who has schizophrenia. Yet as the intimacy of socialization increases from “live next door” to “be friends with” to “spend an evening socializing with” a person with a mental illness, the percentage of respondents unwilling to do so increases dramatically. For instance, 22.9% of people surveyed indicated they are unwilling to live next door to a person with depression. That number increases to 37.8% for socializing for an evening with a depressed individual. The numbers are even greater for individuals with schizophrenia and chemical dependency. Indeed, although individuals who live with a mental illness experience more acceptance today than ever before, strong stigmas and the potential for rejection by peers are still very present.

Stigma: Primary Barrier to Getting Help

Generalized negative attitudes toward people who are mentally ill are ever present on college campuses. According to a 2012 study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, stigma is the number one reason why college students do not seek mental health services. Citing fear of being seen by peers at the campus mental health center, students with a mental health issue choose instead to try to deal with their problems on their own, often without success. The fear of being judged, misunderstood, facing stereotypes, or negative myths (e.g. “All mentally ill people cannot be trusted.”) precludes some collegians from notifying officials about their diagnosis for fear that their disclosure will not be held in confidence. As a result, these students are often not successful in completing their collegiate studies. Of mentally ill students who drop out of college, about half do so without ever seeking mental health services or inquiring about classroom accommodations that would provide them with the support they need and deserve (NAMI, 2012).

To address this issue, colleges and universities need to continue to promote and support on-campus advocacy groups, particularly those that are student-led. Groups like these seek to educate faculty, staff, and students about mental health issues. In addition to decreasing stigma, these organizations can promote help-seeking behaviors among the mentally ill, engage individuals on campus in conversations about wellness and mental health, and educate the student body about the mental health services available to them.

This educational component is extremely important as colleges seek to raise awareness of the multitude of resources available to students who live with a mental illness. Many resources available on college campuses are easy to access without students feeling singled out. Colleges can provide pamphlets with tips for helping a friend in distress, teach small groups of students about the warning signs of common mental health issues, and post contact numbers and hours of operation for the student health clinic at high-traffic areas on campus. Staff counselors can also offer periodic roundtable discussions and presentations on mental health issues that are commonly found among college students. All these strategies are simple, yet highly effective in creating an environment of improved understanding and acceptance of mental health diversity on college campuses.

Finding Help

Getting Help Can Be Difficult         

For some college students, finding help with a mental health issue can be a challenge. The ratio of counselors to students at four-year universities in the United States is 1 to 1,604 (Gallagher, 2013), well above the recommended threshold of one counselor for every 1,000 students (Wood, 2012). Already significantly outnumbered by the students on campus, counselors who are seeing an increased number of students with severe psychological issues have had to find creative solutions to meet student needs. For many college counseling centers this means employing triage methods to address the needs of students in a mental health crisis. Some schools also outsource their mental health services to local agencies or practitioners in order to have the staff resources required to provide adequate care (APA, 2011). Many colleges and universities also employ counselors-in-training from on-campus counseling programs as interns in their counseling centers. These student-practitioners are able to receive valuable on-the-job training, while at the same time providing much needed services to other students. Student-practitioners operate under the close guidance of a credentialed therapist who ensures the quality of care remains very high.

Lack of financial resources is another barrier that many college students must overcome in order to access mental health services. While some college campuses offer basic services such as intakes, assessments, and support groups for free, charges may be incurred for more intensive and individualized treatment, such as one-on-one counseling. For many small colleges that lack the resources or personnel to conduct clinical therapy, off-campus referrals are often made, which presents the potential for even steeper costs for treatment. However, with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, insurance plans are required to include mental health services coverage, thus lessening the financial burden associated with seeking treatment.


Institutional change is also needed in order to promote mental health diversity on college campuses. It is well understood that schools provide services to students that have a developmental disability, learning disability, or physical disability, but there seems to be less understanding that accommodations for students with a mental illness can also be made. In a survey of mentally ill college students, 38% reported that they did not know how to request accommodations for their condition (NAMI, 2012). Furthermore, of the students that were able to access resources, some reported problems with the student support services available at their college counseling center:

  • The support staff focuses only on serving students with physical disabilities.
  • The support staff does not follow up with students or professors to ensure accommodations are being implemented and followed.
  • The support staff does not seem responsive to student needs and concerns.
  • The student support services program does not do a good job of informing students of the services they provide or how to access their services (NAMI, 2012).

Having accommodations can make a critical difference in the success a student has in college. For example, a student with depression may not be able to take an exam or complete a class assignment in a timely fashion. Without accommodations, they may be penalized and their grades suffer. Again, many students with a mental illness do not report their condition to school personnel in the first place, and without doing so, cannot be provided with accommodations. However, after conveying their mental health status to school personnel, some students report being penalized by professors who refuse to recognize the accommodations provided for them (Van Pelt, 2013).

How Colleges Can Improve Mental Health Diversity

Understandably, having a professor deny their accommodations can be extremely frustrating for a student with a mental illness, especially considering that many accommodations are very easy to implement. When testing, students might be allowed to take the test in a different environment, such as at their college’s student support center, and have extra time to complete the test. Having extra time to complete homework assignments and having excused medical absences in order to attend treatment are other common accommodations schools can provide.

Other simple and straightforward methods for raising awareness of mental health needs and promoting diversity on college campuses are:

  • Provide details about mental health resources during campus tours, freshman orientation, and in promotional materials sent to prospective students.
  • Promote strategies for improved mental health at social events in dorms, at the student union, and at other campus locations.
  • Include details about the importance of mental health on the school’s website, including resources regarding common mental health issues and access to anonymous mental health screenings.
  • Initiate open discussions of mental illness, suicide, and substance abuse.
  • Recruit mental health ambassadors to share their personal experiences with mental illness with faculty, staff, and students.
  • Provide training to faculty and staff to improve understanding of mental illness.
  • Endorse prevention-based programs that focus on proactive measures to maintain good mental health for all individuals on campus.

Some colleges and universities have also taken positive steps to offer innovative mental health-related programming to increase awareness and acceptance of mental illness. For instance, at the University of Michigan, the Mentality program promotes awareness of mental health issues by offering workshops and presentations throughout campus (Wood, 2012). Mentality workers, many of whom have had some sort of experience with mental illness in their own lives, provide information in a fun, engaging, and educational manner. Their presentations encourage questions, opens dialogue, and reduces stigma by allowing audience members to connect with peers that live successful and productive lives in spite of their illness (Wood, 2012).

Holistic Approach

An effective way to help is to provide a holistic approach that includes the strategies listed above, as well as developing on-campus crisis services, providing depression screenings, offering on-campus support groups, and developing relationships with local mental health providers to ensure mentally ill college students can receive the services they need to function at their best. Institutions of higher learning must also ensure that counselors have the resources they need to follow up with students that have sought mental health services. As posited by Wood (2012), ideally colleges should have personnel that check in on students to prevent them from developing feelings of isolation and prevent them from slipping through the cracks. Essentially, rather than relying on short-term services, colleges should expand the scope of their programs to provide students with the continuing supports they need for improved behavioral health.

College counseling centers also need to broaden their focus from an informational and developmental point of view, such as helping students devise schedules and plan for future careers, to one that also offers assistance for students with severe psychological problems. By emphasizing preventative services, outreach programs, and education about mental illness, as well as coordinating their efforts in a purposeful manner, colleges and universities, mental health providers, and the community at large can make a positive impact on the level of acceptance mentally ill students experience during their college years. This effort cannot fall only on the shoulders of college and university counselors. The campus community as a whole must demonstrate initiative in order to provide students with the services they need to be successful.



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