In U.S. colleges, mental health awareness and resources are increasing. But the workplace is less forgiving.
Michaela Chai | Intern, Mind Share Partners
In the 1980s, one out of 10 college students were in need of mental health resources. Today, one in three students could use support. Universities have responded by encouraging students to fight stigma and take advantage of on-campus therapists and peer support groups. But once students graduate and enter the workplace, they are often faced with silence or an outright negative perspective on mental health. Over one third of employees fear that mentioning mental health will negatively impact their image and career even though one in five Americans will experience a mental health condition in any given year. Moreover, the majority of employees claim that not only does stigma still exist in the workplace, but that it has intensified during the last five years.
In this article, we follow the student journey from college to workplace, and map out the unique challenges students face during this transition when it comes to mental health, resources, and stigma.
A time of self-discovery, college is also when awareness of mental health conditions increases.
As any sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated college student can confirm, stress pervades college campuses, with up to 80 percent of students reporting that they’ve felt overwhelmed at some point during their college career. However, there is a point when stress can’t be shrugged off as a byproduct of midterms and homework and is instead indicative of a deeper problem.
The American College Health Association’s 2017 study of 63,000 college students found that 60 percent reported feeling overwhelming anxiety, and 40 percent reported depression symptoms so severe that it was difficult for them to function. In fact, 50 percent of of college students rate their mental health as poor overall. This trend is only worsening, as depressive and anxious symptoms were reported by twice as many students in 2017 as in 2008.
All in all, 39 percent of college students will experience a mental health condition. Mental health challenges, whether or not they qualify as a diagnosable condition, are not rare. In fact, they are the norm.
Don’t worry! Help is available in college.
Given that the issue of mental health is a reality for many students, colleges have risen to the occasion. Since the turn of the 21st century, awareness efforts on college campuses have grown. As awareness has increased, so have resources.
Treatment. As more and more college students start to acknowledge that their mental health matters, they’ve become more open to utilizing on-campus therapy options. The period from 2009 to 2015 saw a 38.4 percent increase in the number of counseling appointments attended, compared to an overall five percent increase in student enrollment.
Due to popular demand, colleges in recent years have increased their commitment to improving their counseling and psychological services. In 2015 alone, over 40 percent of college counseling centers expanded their staff. During the following year, the Center for Collegiate Mental Health reported an increasing dedication of resources to university mental health first-aid systems. In addition to short-term counseling, there are also housing, classroom, and test-taking accommodations available to those with mental health conditions.
Other Resources. Apart from university-affiliated resources, students themselves are finding ways to create systems of support. Some join campaigns and speak out against the stigma surrounding mental illness. Others attend or run focused support groups. And for those who prefer one-on-one conversations to group counseling, universities across the country — from Yale to Georgia Tech to the City College of New York — offer peer counseling services. Mental health has even made it onto the political agenda of student government, who have formally acknowledged it as a fundamental facet of student life.
Reinforcing college-based mental health initiatives are organizations with satellite chapters across the U.S. The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), Mental Health America (MHA), the JED Foundation, and Active Minds all focus on providing mental health support to college students. From informational resources to speaker panels, these groups play a key part in normalizing and addressing matters of collegiate mental health.
Culture. Last but not least, the culture and lifestyle of college provide consistent opportunities for positive social interaction. Social support is an empirical factor influencing one’s mental health outcomes; college students with high social support were six times less likely to develop depressive symptoms than peers with lower levels. Moreover, as more students openly acknowledge mental health conditions — 36 percent in 2017 compared to 22 percent on 2007— they’re able to obtain the care they need. The number of students receiving treatment has jumped from 19 percent to 34 percent between 2007 and 2017. Encouragingly, the current cohort of U.S. college students, Generation Z, is the most open of any previous generation in discussing and seeking treatment for mental health conditions.
The frequency of contact with others in college classrooms and other social settings, coupled with a greater awareness about mental health in this population, creates ample opportunity for social support to naturally occur. Therefore, the transparent atmosphere of college can play an integral role in alleviating symptoms of mental health conditions.
A turbulent time of transition ensues after graduation.
A senior in college is 65 percent more likely than a freshman to feel anxious. Upon leaving university and embarking on the job search, emotions of loss, worry, and stress are common, which in turn can precipitate episodes of depression or anxiety. These triggers can cause mental health conditions to surface for the first time, as well as recur. The average onset for depression is during one’s mid-20s, and it is not uncommon for anxiety to first manifest during this age as well.
When compared to their elders, those aged 18-25 have the highest prevalence of any mental health condition; more than one in three (35.8 percent) are affected. Therefore, incoming employees are a high-risk population.
Congrats, you found a job!
In the workplace, mental health conditions persist, affecting employees of every age and seniority level. Eighteen percent of all employees report feeling anxious or depressed. Incoming professionals constitute a sizeable portion of this population. In fact, Millennials (aged 23-38) and Gen Zers (aged 22 and under) are three to four times more likely than older employees to experience anxiety symptoms.
Upon entering the workforce, new hires often self-identify as “anxious” and “exhausted.” Their age-related vulnerability, combined with work-specific triggers like job strain, monotony, poor management styles, and lack of decision-making power mean that it is all too common for stress and burnout to fester and ultimately destabilize mental health.
Workplace mental health resources are nowhere near as developed as university psychological health services. Fewer than 50 percent of employees rate their employer’s mental health services as sufficient. Only one out of four managers have been trained on how to refer their employees to company mental health resources. While 60 percent of board members and senior managers believe their organisation supports people with mental health issues, only 11 percent of top executives have actually discussed a mental health problem with a manager. Concerned about confidentiality, employees shy away from starting conversations. Ultimately, there is a clear disconnect between the viewpoints of senior leadership and incoming employees regarding the efficacy of mental health resources.
Resource availability is one issue, yet work culture is a more pervasive problem. Why? Many norms dictate that young professionals should prioritize their career, not their mental health. Guidance for new employees often sounds like: “Try your best,” “Don’t show weakness,” “Put your best self forward,” and “Go for that promotion.” Maximizing one’s career trajectory, giving 110 percent percent, and proving one’s worth take precedence over maintaining healthy work-life practices.
Secondly, compared to the social density and resource availability in colleges, support at work is harder to find. Work culture is one where “we use language of ‘being overwhelmed’ as a badge of honor.” Employees find themselves immersed in a culture where success is defined not by vulnerability and empathy, but by image and performance.
Integration into this new paradigm comes at the cost of minimizing or invalidating mental health conditions. Employees with such conditions face high barriers to adjustment. In professional settings, the term “mental health” is stripped of its validity and replaced by euphemisms like “stress” and “burnout.”
Ultimately, work culture breeds stigma.
Stigma is the largest obstacle preventing people from seeking help. Only one out of three employees are comfortable asking for support, 63 percent of employees with mental health conditions have not disclosed to their employers, and less than 50 percent of employees view their senior executives as advocates for mental health. What’s the outcome? While 84 percent of employees report experiencing symptoms of poor mental health at work, 95 percent of those who need time off due to stress will cite other causes like headaches upset stomachs.
Why does stigma exist? Maintaining a professional image and avoiding negative judgement comes at the cost of hiding things that could be seen as weaknesses. Thus, companies have inadvertently normalized a culture of putting up a facade and downplaying mental health challenges. A LinkedIn survey exposes how ingrained this principle is, finding that the number one reason employees don’t ask for help is that “they feel that they must prove their worth by solving a problem on their own.”
Stigma stems primarily from work culture. Employees choose not to initiate disclosure because they fear bringing shame, embarrassment, and judgment upon themselves. They’re not wrong. Less than half of those who disclosed to a manager reported that a positive conversation followed. At the very worst, poor mental health can lead to scenarios involving disciplinary action and dismissal.
Impact of stigma. Stigma prevents the full utilization of available benefits, as employees are reluctant to use resources unless they perceive that their supervisor, or the organization as a whole, is supportive. This could explain why Employee Assistance Programs, available in 77 percent of companies, boast a meager 4.5 percent employee utilization rate.
Ultimately, stigma is more than a hazy sense of guilt or isolation. It affects employees’ concentration, cognitive functions, and capability to do their jobs. 61 percent of employeeshave said their productivity at work is affected by mental health; the two cannot be separated. All in all, $17 billion dollars in business costs are lost in the U.S. every year due to mental-health-related productivity declines.
What does the future hold?
The kids are alright. The prevalence of mental health conditions among Gen Zers and millennials has produced a fresh set of challenges that the workforce must address. Fortunately, in spite the stigma, younger generations are demonstrating that they are ready to address and prioritize mental health at work. When choosing a job, twice as many millennials as Baby Boomers look for a workplace culture that values mental health. Additionally, 75 percent of Gen Zers and 50 percent of millennials have chosen to leave a job for mental health reasons. Undoubtedly, mental health will only matter more to the incoming workforce.
How can we start the conversation? With 88 percent of employees seeing it as their employers’ responsibility to care for mental health, it’s up to leadership to initiate top-down change. It isn’t necessary to become a certified psychologist in order to support mental health at work either. Simple steps like cultivating and modeling an open, empathetic mindset in the office are crucial in the creation of a more supportive culture. Companies can also sponsor mental health workshops to teach leaders, managers, and employees how to name, normalize, and navigate mental health at work.
For more resources, check out Mind Share Partners’ free toolkits for mentally healthy work practices or how to create a mental health employee resource group (ERG).
Together, we can make a difference.
Learn more about the state of mental health in U.S. workplaces in Mind Share Partners' Mental Health at Work 2019 Report.
Michaela Chai is an intern at Mind Share Partners, a nonprofit focused on changing the culture of workplace mental health. As a Psychology major at UC Berkeley, Michaela plans to become a mental health professional after graduating. She is currently involved in a research lab that studies depression treatments and parent-teen conflict styles. In her free time, she enjoys singing, baking cookies, and fawning over pictures of corgis.