Protect More Than Women’s Bodies on Campus

The work to protect women’s bodies is so important and still needed—but it is also important that we take steps to proactively protect the mental health of our female students. 

In a recent study, about 77 percents of students experienced some kind of psychological distress. The highest rates of mental health problems were found in female students. (FatCamera Archives / Getty Images)

At the same time the Supreme Court grapples yet again with women’s reproductive rights to protect their health, approximately 9 million undergraduate women have just finished their spring semester. 

This academic year, I walked four students, all women, to our counseling and psychological services (CAPS). In each case, they were noticeably upset and it was clear their emotional distress was going to interfere with their ability to participate in class. 

Research shows that among college students, women report more mental health issues than men. The work to protect women’s bodies is so important and still needed—but it is also important that we take steps to proactively protect the mental health of our female students. 

While women make up the majority of undergraduate students, they are still underrepresented at the faculty level and in high-paying STEM majors. When women do enter STEM, they face unique challenges and have a high rate of attrition. On the flip side, they are overrepresented in difficult and underpaid areas, such as social work.  

Further, young women are uniquely situated to bear the brunt of myriad social harms, such as those related to social media, responsibilities as caregivers to their families and dependents, disordered eating, work responsibilities, asphyxiation during sex, as well as the sexist social pressure to conform to beauty standards. Student life could intensify these stressors and doesn’t safeguard women from any of these pressures. Undergraduate women report more stress and less enjoyment on campus then their male counterparts.

Women also face gendered obstacles on campus, such as the glass escalator, which tends to promote males in female-dominated fields.

The year I went up for tenure, I had a series of unexpected and traumatic experiences. I know I am not the only faculty to experience a mental health breakdown at a high-stress and highly important time in my academic career. In fact, mental health problems in academia are under-discussed and relatively common

Discussing Mental Health in Academia

Because of my own mental health challenges, I view student’s mental health through a lens of awareness. I make sure students know that I care about their mental health and the level of stress that they have in their lives. I do not want my class to be something that causes harm to their nervous system. If they are struggling, I encourage them to pause and reach out. I let them know that I can and will accept late assignments throughout the semester. These are small things that professors can consider incorporating into their classrooms to mitigate student stress.

Additionally, we can embed pro-social activities that work to connect students with each other and their communities, such as hosting watch parties. Assignments can ask students to attend community events and events on campus, particularly those that include powerful women and/or center female empowerment. Students need to understand that they are valuable and worthy, regardless of how they perform in our classes. 

When students express difficulties related to depression, anxiety, lack of motivation and similar feelings, I encourage them to access the resources available to them on campus—not only because they are resources available to them as students that are not available post-graduation, but also because supply should expand relative to demand. 

Within the California State University system, the current ratio of students to mental health counselors is around 1,500 to 1. The CSU mental healthcare system is understaffed; wait times for student appointments can range up to eight weeks. It is good that students have access to crisis counseling; however, eight appointments per year is not enough. The number of sessions should be determined by the student and counselor. Faculty should also be able to more easily access counselors alongside students in order for faculty to access a point of contact in the moment of urgency. In my experience, I walk students to CAPS during class time. 

The Need for Counselors Focusing on Women

Faculty, administrators and students can continue to bolster the use and expansion of these resources. We need counselors that focus on issues that disproportionately impact women: disordered eating, sexual violence, dating, domestic and intimate partner violence and shouldering the responsibility of both younger and older dependents. 

At the same time, university administration needs to take seriously the additional lifts that female faculty do to care for their students and colleagues. Studies have long shown that female faculty are responsible for more service work. Struggling students disproportionately seek out female academics for emotional support. This labor is largely unnoticed, unpaid and that gap needs to be addressed, particularly in the retention, tenure and promotion process. 

Demographics have changed and more women are present on university campuses. Research demonstrates women too often lack physical safety on campus. We know that sexual assaults and violence against women are common, yet underreported. Continuing to fight to make campuses physically safe spaces for women is important and crucial work.  And, it is not enough to protect our physical safety, we must also take action to create campuses, classrooms and processes that are mentally safe for women students and faculty. Doing so could very well save lives.

The 988 Lifeline is a national number that accesses local crisis centers you can call or text for free and confidential support during emotional distress 24/7.

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Megan Thiele Strong, Ph.D., is a sociology professor at San José State University and a 2023-24 public voices fellow at the The OpEd Project.