Washington universities struggle to serve all their students’ mental health needs. Here’s why

David, a sophomore pre-med student at the University of Washington, was used to juggling a busy schedule: He was a wrestler, swimmer, and runner in high school and works 20 hours a week on top of a full course load.

Still, when he finally made it to campus this school year — attending labs in person for the first time after two years of online work — the stress was bubbling. Being on campus was challenging and exciting, but he felt higher expectations came with in-person learning.

“I felt like I had to have my foot pressed all the way down on the pedal 100% of the time, or else everything’s just gonna fall apart,” said David, who asked that only his middle name be used out of concern that speaking about mental health struggles could disqualify him from future professional opportunities.

David and many other students now back on college campuses are experiencing not only the stress that comes from entering young adulthood, but also the added burden of the COVID-19 pandemic as a backdrop. And while David was lucky to get mental health care, many college students experience long wait times to see a counselor as UW and other universities across Washington state struggle to keep up with demand. 

Even before the pandemic, college and university counseling systems couldn’t provide enough services for students. COVID-19 exacerbated the problem, and it worsened as students returned to classes in person.