It is supposed to be the time of their life — the halcyon days of college, when young adults grow, acquire knowledge, and learn new skills. But according to the 2016–17 Healthy Minds Study, an annual survey of mental health on American college campuses, while 44 percent of students said that they were flourishing, 39 percent reported experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety. The proportion of students experiencing suicidal ideation has grown from six percent in 2007 to 11 percent in 2017. The percentage of students receiving psychotherapy has jumped from 13 percent to 24 percent over the same period. Even though more students are getting help, only a little more than half of those with symptoms of depression and anxiety had received treatment in the previous year.

The rise in mental health challenges is not limited to college students. One in every four adults in the United States will suffer from an anxiety disorder in the course of his or her lifetime, and suicide rates for men and women have risen since 2000. Whether these figures are a passing trend, the new normal, or a harbinger of greater challenges to come, one cannot fully know. But no matter what, universities need to deal with this uptick in psychological distress. No longer can they consider students’ mental health to be outside their area of responsibility.

Nowadays, that responsibility has broadened to include increasing students’ resiliency—that is, helping them not just avoid stress but also develop the tools to work through it. Resiliency is about decreasing students’ sense of overwhelming stress while fostering their growing autonomy to tackle difficult life challenges. It’s also about treating their very real depression and anxiety.

Taking responsibility for students’ mental health needs is particularly complex at a time when universities are rightfully under pressure about cost and access. And it is all the more complex given that part of the core mission of higher education is to challenge students.

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  • Sylvia Mathews Burwell is the 15th president of American University in Washington, DC, and the first woman to lead the institution. A lifelong changemaker, she advances the university’s mission to foster knowledge and empower lives of purpose, service, and leadership. Burwell previously served as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2014-2017) and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (2013-2014), and held leadership positions at two of the world’s largest foundations, addressing issues of global health, women’s empowerment, and economic development.