Wellbeing and Mental Health

From campus to career: understanding youth mental health

The transition from education into the world of work can be a trying time for many people, and is often when mental health issues emerge.

The transition from education into the world of work can be a trying time for many people, and is often when mental health issues emerge. Image: Shutterstock / Pressmaster

Ruma Bhargava
Lead, Mental Health, World Economic Forum
Wesley Dixon
Deputy to the President , Vassar College
Liz Grant
Assistant Principal (Global Health) and Director Global Health Academy, University of Edinburgh
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Education, Gender and Work

This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare

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  • 51% of young professionals aged 22 to 27 sought assistance for emotional or mental health issues within the past year.
  • Mental health problems are more acute for vulnerable populations, like immigrants and people of colour.
  • A dialogue between stakeholders in education and the professional world could help to improve this.

The mental well-being of youth and young adults is emerging as a pivotal concern — one that warrants both reflection and action.

The challenges that confront young people today, coupled with the destabilizing transition from education into the workforce, require a better understanding of the nuances of mental health. These challenges are exacerbated by global issues like the climate crisis, economic uncertainties, societal transformations and pandemics. Understanding how these factors intersect is essential to unpack the complex landscape of youth mental health.


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The mental health burden in an insecure world

Mental health's prevalence as a top contender among global disease burdens since 1990 underscores its impact across all age groups.

This problem is acute among vulnerable populations, exacerbated as it is by the climate crisis, food and energy insecurity, conflict, pollution and poverty. A staggering 750,000 lives, many of them young, are lost to suicide every year — a stark reminder of the silent pandemic of mental illness gripping the globe. The World Health Organization's Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan (CMHAP) calls for contextually relevant mental health responses to counteract this unprecedented surge in psychological distress.

Central to the discourse on mental health among young people is the interface between education and mental well-being. Educational institutions not only impart knowledge, but also play a pivotal role in shaping the mental resilience of their students. There is a symbiotic relationship between mental health and education. The seamless transition from learning environments to the realm of work is crucial for fostering adaptive coping mechanisms and emotional well-being. This transition, however, is fraught with its own challenges that demand consideration.

Worryingly, 51% of young professionals aged 22 to 27 sought assistance for emotional or mental health issues within the past year. This statistic highlights the growing prevalence of depressive symptoms and anxiety among college students, with figures soaring as high as 45%. These figures have tripled in just two decades.

Furthermore, the transition into the workforce often exacerbates pre-existing mental health issues. Recent graduates find themselves grappling with a work environment that can adversely affect their psychological well-being. A significant percentage — 45% — reported that their workplace dynamics had a negative impact on their mental health. The omnipresent spectre of burnout — a state of emotional and physical exhaustion stemming from work-related stress — looms large, with 53% of young professionals experiencing burnout on a weekly basis. This epidemic extends its reach along gender lines, with women and those facing financial strain disproportionately affected.

Complexity amid transition

The student demographic, characterized by its transitional nature, represents a crossroads of identity formation, academic pressure and societal expectations. Within this crucible, the issue of mental health often remains inadequately addressed. While efforts have been made to destigmatize mental health challenges, the gap between awareness and action remains. Disturbingly, among students screening positive for depression or anxiety disorders in the past year, less than half receive the treatment they require. This treatment gap is a stark reminder of the systemic barriers that hamper comprehensive mental health care.

The burden is particularly pronounced among marginalized groups. First-generation and low-income students, students of colour and international students grapple with compounded challenges arising from limited financial and socio-cultural resources. As they navigate uncharted territories, these students encounter barriers that impede their access to vital mental health support.

Holistic approaches: from education to the workplace

To address this growing crisis, both educational institutions and workplaces are seeking multifaceted interventions. Proactive psychosocial education is being integrated into academic curricula to provide students with resilience-building tools. Online cognitive behavioural therapy, group therapy and peer-support networks are becoming integral components of this effort.

Yet, a transformative approach lies in reshaping the organizational cultures within institutions and workplaces. Cultures that foster social connection, holistic well-being, responsible social media use and harm reduction approaches can serve as antidotes to the root causes of mental health challenges. By addressing the underlying societal factors, such as loneliness and information overload, these approaches can alleviate the burgeoning rates of depression and anxiety.

Vassar College and the University of Edinburgh serve as exemplars of institutions proactively fostering mental health-friendly environments. Vassar's "A Work in Progress" mental health photo journalism exhibit, in collaboration with the President's Office and Engaged Pluralism, offers a platform for individuals to share their mental health narratives. Faculty members and students at Vassar are also leveraging the institution's innovative curriculum to infuse mental health awareness within various disciplines.

The University of Edinburgh's initiatives stand as a testament to the commitment to holistic well-being. The Global Compassion Initiative seeks to enhance the practice of compassion, while the Abundant Academy, a two-semester module focusing on rejuvenation, connection and realization, underscores the imperative of fostering a compassionate and resilient campus community.

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The confluence of roles

Institutions of higher education and employers are at a unique crossroads, shaping the trajectories of young adults transitioning into a complex world. They have the dual responsibilities of preparing the youth for a productive and healthy future while cultivating workplace environments conducive to mental well-being.

A dialogue between these stakeholders can drive the transformation of organizational cultures and positively impact the mental health of future generations.

The challenges to the mental health of youth and college students are multifaceted and deeply intertwined with global complexities. Navigating them necessitates concerted efforts across educational institutions and workplaces.

By fostering environments that prioritize mental well-being, embracing innovative interventions and shifting cultural paradigms, society can chart a course towards a future where the mental health of the youth is not just a priority — it is a shared commitment.

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