Mental Health Among University Students: What Has Been Tried and What Can Be Done?

Infographics by Morgan Kong

This May, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murphy released a report that established loneliness as an epidemic. Rising social isolation is among the most significant drivers of the ongoing mental health crisis. While COVID-19 exacerbated this concerning trend, studies show that interpersonal engagement with friends and family has consistently declined for the past two decades.

This is corroborated by several metrics. Americans now have fewer close friends — in one 2021 study, 49% of Americans reported having fewer than four friends, compared with 27% in 1990 — and spend dramatically less time physically engaging with friends and family. Unsurprisingly, these patterns have paralleled increases in mental health diagnoses and the national suicide rate.

“Loneliness and low social support are also associated with increased risk of self-harm,” wrote Murphy. “In a review of 40 studies of more than 60,000 older adults, an increase in loneliness was reported to be among the primary motivations for self-harm. Given the totality of the evidence, social connection may be one of the strongest protective factors against self-harm and suicide among people with and without serious underlying mental health challenges.” 

“In a review of 40 studies of more than 60,000 older adults, an increase in loneliness was reported to be among the primary motivations for self-harm.”

Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for Americans between 15 and 24. Discussing the sense of community — or lack thereof — among young adults is paramount in preventing such incidents on a college campus. RIT has over 15,000 students, faculty and staff and offers over 100 academic programs and 300 clubs. The College Activity Board and other organizations routinely host events that bring students together and build cherished relationships.

At first glance, labeling RIT as socially isolating may seem baffling. Yet, despite the efforts of the university to build a strong community, students still struggle immensely with loneliness and their mental health. The administration and students must take steps and work together to build a strong, caring and supportive community to support the mental health of everyone on campus. 


In January of 2023, Reporter reviewed the state of Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS) and found that students had two primary complaints: the lengthy wait times for appointments and the lack of long-term services. Students suggested that more funding be funneled from the university into CaPS so that they could accommodate more people.

Given the construction of the Student Hall for Exploration and Development and announcements for a new graduate research facility and a performing arts center, many believe that the university is allocating its money into the wrong projects. Dollie Whipple, a third year student in the School of Individualized Study, offered their insight.

“I’m not really sure why we're doing that performance art building next to the engineering buildings when we've got better things to do — people need the help more than we need another building.” 

Granted, the university has repeatedly expressed interest in improving CaPS. President Munson’s administration launched the University Task Force on Student Mental Health and Well-Being following a student suicide in 2018. The team drafted a report of steps that RIT needed to take to improve its handling of student mental health, including clearing the stigma of seeking counseling on campus and improving the timeliness of services. 

While Sarah Godoy, the new CaPS director since August, acknowledged the need for further progress, she was satisfied with the university’s progress in recent years. She noted that RIT has enhanced CaPS funding and supported the expansion of services.

“I’m very thankful for [funding] because it means that we’re in a good staffing position right now,” said Godoy. CaPS currently employs 18 therapists and counselors and is searching for three more. That includes a second counselor assigned exclusively to NTID students. 

However, this number is similar to when the Task Force report was released over four years ago — CaPS had 17 counseling staff and four openings at the time. Counseling as a field has remarkably high turnover rates, a nationwide issue that Godoy attributes to burnout and, in recent years, the growth of online services. 

The long-standing industry standard for university psychology services is that there should be between 1,000 and 1,500 students enrolled for each therapist or counselor, depending on caseload and student utilization. RIT has consistently met that threshold. According to Godoy, approximately 12% of students utilized CaPS during the 2021–22 academic year, which is only slightly higher than the nationwide average. 

Many mental health centers, including CaPS, now use a metric known as the clinical load index, which better accounts for utilization rates when determining whether their counseling system is overwhelmed. Godoy noted that CaPS has a moderate clinical index.  

“Coming from a center [at Western Washington University] that had a very high clinical load index, which means very high caseloads … it can feel really challenging, there is a lot of burnout in those sorts of settings. Being mid-level, that means that we are able to provide [very] good care.”

Since the report was released, CaPS has also switched away from group therapy and now focuses primarily on individualized sessions, meaning that therapists can spend more time offering direct services. As a whole, the therapists at CaPS spend 65% of their time directly serving clients, which matches the industry recommendation of between 60% and 65%. 

The university is still working to decrease stigma through community events; for instance, the eight-hour Mental Health First Aid course was launched and trains students, staff and faculty to both manage their own mental health and support those going through a crisis.

Wait times have been consistently decreasing, too. CaPS implemented a new strategy for measuring wait time shortly before the Task Force report was released, in which they measure the number of days until the third-soonest available appointment. This model ignores spontaneous, one-time openings that may appear in the schedule due to last-minute cancellations and no-shows, and so it is considered a gold standard in the industry. 

According to Godoy, wait times at CaPS were close to a month before this system was implemented, whereas CaPS now aims to have the third-soonest appointment available within ten days. In the 2022–23 academic year, that metric was met with a 93% success rate.

Students are quick to blame the university’s alleged negligence of CaPS for aggravating mental health issues on campus. Though the system undoubtedly needs improvement — especially with regards to resources for NTID students, who currently only have one designated counselor — the issue extends much deeper than CaPS.


Barriers in mental health care exist well beyond RIT. In a piece discussing the one-year anniversary of the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, KFF Health News reported, “Compounding the need for help are the pervasive barriers to actually getting it: months-long wait lists to see mental health providers; not enough providers who accept insurance; a lack of providers of Color, or those trained in trauma-informed care.”

The implementation of the 988 hotline in July of 2022 helped provide resources to those in need of urgent mental health services. The federally mandated hotline was meant to simplify the old 1-(800) number and enhance access to urgent care. Over 4 million calls were received by 988 in its first year, a 33% increase from the old line in the year prior.

Another concern expressed by RIT students in the January Reporter piece was the way in which urgent mental health issues are framed, both on and off campus. There are many people struggling with mental health who are not in an active crisis — this puts them in an awkward position between waiting multiple months to see a therapist and calling a crisis line for support.

While CaPS offers walk-in urgent care appointments, Godoy emphasized that these are not exclusive to those with suicidal ideations.

“We can also see urgent care for things like a breakup or really terrible news ... we want the student to define what ‘urgent’ is,” she stated.

“We can also see urgent care for things like a breakup or really terrible news ... we want the student to define what ‘urgent’ is.”

By better framing the broad scope of what urgent care entails, services such as CaPS and hotlines can accommodate students before they experience intense suicidal thoughts. Because suicide is often a split-second decision, per Godoy, waiting until those ideations arise is often too late.


This October, RIT sent out a survey regarding the mental well-being of the student population, including questions about suicidal ideation among students. The results of this survey will be analyzed and released in February of 2024, according to Sandra Johnson, the vice president of Student Affairs.

RIT also has embedded counselors at the PRogressive Intersectional Space to Meet (PRISM), a space managed by the Center for Women, Gender and Sexuality. Chris Hinesley, an assistant director for the Q Center and the Center for Campus Life, discussed the importance of establishing support networks for students — such as the LGBTQ+ community — that statistically need stronger mental health programs.

“My bubble is the LGBTQIA2S+ community and I look at lots of data comparing us to other populations,” he said. “We have higher rates of anxiety and depression, for example. We are also incredibly resilient when we support each other.” 

Hinesley also noted the importance of destigmatizing mental health issues, which would help students overcome one of the largest barriers preventing them from seeking the help they need.

“Mental health issues are also still stigmatized in general so it can be hard to push yourself to access help. I think we have to encourage each other to use our resources and keep using our creativity to innovate new solutions,” he said. “It was interesting to learn some warning signs that I was unaware of, and some new ideas for supporting people who are struggling.” 

“Mental health issues are also still stigmatized in general so it can be hard to push yourself to access help.”

Being conscious of warning signs is also important, and students should be taught what to look out for if a friend or classmate experiences a mental health crisis. Students should not be afraid to check in on their peers if they are acting “out of it” or showing signs that they are in need of support — such signs may include them unexpectedly distancing themselves from others, skipping classes or admitting that they are depressed.

RIT has instituted a plan for faculty who witness a student struggling with their mental health. Termed the “Red Folder,” this is a system by which a professor can document students who are showing warning signs, such as a serious depressive episode, change in course effort or emotional and physical disorientation. RIT Case Management learns about each situation and takes the appropriate steps to provide these students with more support.

Suicide Management at Other American Universities

RIT students are not alone in struggling with mental health. Other universities across both the state and the country face a similar dilemma, with approximately 1,100 college students taking their own lives each year. However, the suicide rate at RIT is presumably higher than the national average. For reference, one student is expected to die by suicide every two to three years at a typical university with 10,000 undergraduates.

The State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton, which has a student body of approximately 14,000, experienced a student suicide on the morning of Oct. 30, less than a week after the RIT death. The responses from the two universities were very different and point to a lack of emphasis on trauma management at RIT. Following the death at Binghamton, official communication came from President Harvey Stenger. Classes were canceled for the day and made optional on Halloween, giving students the chance to mourn. 

“If we don't have classes today, we will miss seeing each other,” wrote Stenger in an official statement. “But if we do have classes, you may not be able to participate effectively. So please do what you believe is best for you today. Here is my proposal: Faculty, please don't cover any new material, and if you wish to cancel your class, feel free to do so. If you do have class, perhaps just have a session of Q&A. And please don't mark anyone absent. We have very, very smart students, and missing one or two days of class won't hurt them. But also, many are still very sad and being with others may be comforting.” 

On the other hand, RIT University Communications released a vague statement stating that there was an “incident involving a student” that night. The student’s identity was only released the next morning, while classes were in session. Because of the timing and the fact that RIT did not cancel for the day, it is plausible that acquaintances found out about the suicide — or at least the student involved — when they were in public or during their morning lecture. 

Moreover, statements about student deaths at RIT are managed by Sandra Johnson and Student Affairs. To the ire of many, President Munson did not offer a statement to the entire student body regarding the incident. 

That is not to say that the response at Binghamton was perfect. However, RIT clearly had enough time to react to the situation in a more comprehensive way. Two more students have passed away since that incident, and RIT again provided no guidance beyond its typical correspondence via email. 


One community in Philadelphia has addressed the mental health crisis through a new method, termed “integrated behavioral health.” Summer Sheridan-Zabre, the former director of student achievement at Girard College, expressed the need to partner students with counselors in a timely manner.

“We had a few students who were identified as in-crisis — not ‘call 911 crisis,’ but needing to speak to someone immediately, whether it was because of depression or maybe they were off of their medication because they stopped seeing their psychiatrist — and we were able to get them in with a psychiatrist within 24 hours,” she told The Philadelphia Citizen in 2022.

Integrated behavioral health brings mental health services into primary care offices, cutting out the wait times and private offices. The system assists patients in receiving medication approved from their service providers and removes some of the financial burden as well.

The Philadelphia Citizen also noted, “Integrated behavioral health brings mental health into a mainstream health care setting … While there, you’ll also get screened for mental health conditions through a standardized questionnaire. If you’re ‘positive’ on the evaluation, you’ll be able to see an onsite psychologist or social worker to triage your mental health care right then, including by consulting with an on-call psychiatrist.”

RIT Case Management can connect students to off-campus mental health services if they require assistance beyond CaPS. While CaPS offers a 24/7 mental health hotline for students in urgent need, students feel that seeking help is an overly complicated and difficult process, especially if they would rather seek treatment outside of RIT.

“I know a good number of people who have been using [CaPS] and for them, it's just like they can't really find a therapist off campus to talk to,” stated Erik Callejas, a second year Chemical Engineering student. “I do think it’s very good that it’s there for people who need it and can’t really find someone else. But on the other hand, the fact that they are so overworked means that they aren't as useful as they could be.”

RIT can learn from the success of integrated behavioral health in other communities and make it easier for students to receive counseling and other services. By listening to the thoughts of students — who have repeatedly called for more counselors, greater access to counseling and an increased connection with off-campus resources — student mental health can certainly be improved. More than that, combining a strong on-campus community with equally impactful counseling resources can help save the lives of students.

Integrated behavioral health would also revamp the Student Health Center by adding mental health screening and check-ups to their day-to-day processes. This would ensure that even students who are not going for mental-health-related reasons are still having their mental health checked and can be seen immediately by a counselor if deemed necessary.


When other universities face mental health crises, it is the students who step up to bring change to their campuses, not just administration. At SUNY Geneseo, the Sisters Making a Change (SMAC) sorority was founded by students to bring awareness to mental health issues. Every spring, SMAC partners with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to host the “Out of the Darkness” walk, which works to destigmatize discussions of suicide. St. John Fisher University, Roberts Wesleyan University and Nazareth University collaborate in holding an Out of the Darkness walk every April, too.

Additionally, over 45 colleges and universities in New York have registered Active Minds chapters, including the University of Rochester and Binghamton. Active Minds is a non-profit organization that strives to improve mental health awareness through community events designed to bring students together.

Paul Gluck, the president of Active Minds at Binghamton, described how even the simplest, seemingly unrelated events — such as hosting a group hike and making s’mores in the sunset  — go a long way in promoting wellness.

“There is nothing inherently ‘mental-healthy’ about that, except just that it’s just a good time,” said Gluck when referring to the recent s’mores outing. “[Students] can just have fun and enjoy themselves without having to be ... ‘I’m going to talk about my mental health.’”

“[Students] can just have fun and enjoy themselves without having to be ... ‘I’m going to talk about my mental health.’”

To that end, while Active Minds at Binghamton is working to organize presentations in local high schools and find guest speakers from advocacy groups, Gluck believes that the greatest impact comes from bonding events that students do together. According to him, wait times for counseling services at Binghamton can extend longer than a month, which makes peer-to-peer interventions that much more effective. 

Searching “RIT Active Minds” reveals several social media threads in which students showed interest in forming a chapter on campus — while RIT students formed an Active Minds club several years ago, its X account has been inactive for six years, and the group is no longer visible on the Active Minds website or under RIT’s list of active student clubs and organizations. 

Active Minds chapters are not the only student-led organizations operating at these universities. Binghamton students run a free, non-emergency helpline called SEEK (Support Empathy Empowerment Kindness) for three hours every night, allowing people to find support before their situation becomes more dire. 

Some schools also have mental health clubs and advocacy groups dedicated to specific programs of study. Students at Ithaca College founded the Mental Health Awareness for Musicians Association (MHAMA) so that their peers can receive targeted support from one another. 

“There’s this umbrella statement that music majors struggle with their mental health … you might go practice for the next five hours and you won’t get a break,” said Hunter De Young, a Music Teacher Education student and the vice president of a new Active Minds chapter at Ithaca College. Before the pandemic, MHAMA would organize hikes and group outings to help music students wind down from their intense practices.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) also has chapters that help colleges and universities nationwide. According to Tiffany Rollek, director of AFSP’s Western New York chapter, “We do a lot with the [University of Rochester], St. John Fisher, Monroe Community College, SUNY Geneseo [and] Nazareth. Some request resources, some host campus walks, some faculty are trained and deliver programs.” 

The litany of resources that the AFSP provides, which includes guest speakers, tabling to raise awareness and posters are all available for free. These resources can be requested by RIT administrators, professors, clubs and organizations. Some RIT faculty have even been trained by the AFSP to assist students in crisis. RIT should be doing much more with the AFSP to ensure that students have the best resources available. 

At RIT, student organizations are taking shape with the goal of bringing more resources to the community. The Men’s Mental Health Club was created to address the strong stigma that surrounds men’s emotions. Club founder Julian Reester spoke about the importance of student advocacy when it comes to getting better mental health services for students. To him, starting the club was a way to bring awareness to a social issue that he believed was being neglected.

“[The Men’s Mental Health Club] started because I've just kind of realized the fact that RIT doesn't actually do a lot about it,” Reester said, “And men's mental health is something that isn't talked about often, especially not like very publicly.” he said.

To make the club, Reester turned to using the internet as a form of social activism. He reached out to accounts on Instagram that share the thoughts of RIT students to garner support for the group and find potential members. 

Other students have attempted to organize on-campus protests to call out what they perceive as inaction at the university level. Further plants to protest are still ongoing.


Although awareness is one of the best ways to allocate more resources to students struggling with mental health, activism alone cannot end the rise in student suicides. University administration must work to bring appropriate resources to campus, and they should not rely solely on students to campaign for change.

Prevention also involves training the right people to detect crises before they occur. Suicides within the RIT community often take place within the dorms, so training Residential Advisors and Residence Life to be more attentive can save lives. Rollek also addressed the need for specific resources for communities that are more likely to face mental health issues. This includes the LGBTQ+ and Latino communities, among others.

Any efforts led by students and the university need to last. Reeser noted that Men’s Mental Health Club required appointed officers and interest from several students to become and remain official. This requires students to keep advocating for the cause, even when the campus is not actively grieving a recent death. 

“The fact that if we fail, if it doesn't work out, then it just becomes kind of sad that people don't want to actively take the steps to try and do something about it,” Reester said.


Mental health crises are rising in number and frequency among students across college campuses in America. Addressing this issue takes an entire community — campus administrators, faculty, support specialists and students must all come together to create a setting of support and care for every single person on this campus. By implementing more resources to assist students who may be going through a crisis and linking them with support both on and off campus, RIT and other universities can create a more mentally aware environment. 

But it is up to students to take advantage of these resources and recognize telltale signs of struggle, both within themselves and in their peers. This extends beyond the last-minute utilization of CaPS and hotlines. As beneficial and critical as those services are, the student body has the power to weave stronger support systems through advocacy and new organizations. After all, limiting social isolation and forming a more comprehensive community can prevent crises before they arise.