Campus Mental Health: Is New Infrastructure Needed?

By November 8, 2019 Blog Post

Imagine the most complicated of traffic intersections: Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle, for example. Traffic comes in from all directions, swerves across multiple lanes, dodges inattentive pedestrians. It is a traffic nightmare. And it is an apt metaphor for the campus mental health crisis. It is not one, or two, or even three lanes of converging traffic. It is a confluence of multiple crises: students struggling with significant mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Limited resources responding to their needs. A workforce with its own mental health challenges. Legal obligations that both impede and impel institutional response. Enrollment goals that loom, always, in the discussion of who we admit and how we keep them enrolled.

How do we keep the traffic flowing? In the Dupont Circle metaphor today’s campuses are seeing an ever-increasing flow from all directions converging on a structure with limited capacity and even more limited ways to increase that capacity (the tunnel beneath Dupont Circle helps but widening the circle to include more lanes is a nonstarter). We may be at a point where we have to head a few blocks up each of the major avenues that feed Dupont Circle and divert traffic. What might that mean? Some of our students are simply not ready for the stress of college life. Some of our emerging professionals may not be, either. Do we have the courage (and the legal and moral authority) to divert them?

Lee Burdette Williams, PhD, is the senior director for mental health initiatives at the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. She has led student affairs divisions in both public and private institutions. On April 7, 2020, she will moderate a discussion among leading experts at AGB’s National Conference on Trusteeship entitled “The Deepening Campus Mental Health Crisis: To Whom Do We Owe Our ‘Ethic of Care’?”—part of a special sequence of conference sessions comprising the AGB Summit on Student Health and Safety.