College and university students today are navigating an unforgiving maze, balancing coursework, relationships, jobs and an increased awareness of devastating world events. It’s a recipe for disaster for their mental health.
Student wellness has always been a concern on higher education campuses — with institutions doing what they can to ensure their students are as healthy as possible.
For many institutions, that meant offering fitness facilities, on-campus clinics and physical wellness courses. Mental health resources were scarce until recently, as there was a taboo surrounding mental health struggles that can still persist on some campuses.
“Counseling was a behind-the-scenes tool — important, yes, but one of those things that leadership didn’t pay too much attention to,” John Schmidt, senior vice chancellor of student success at Troy University, told Hanover Research.
But nurturing a healthy mind is just as important to a student’s overall wellbeing as nurturing a healthy body. Institutions should take initiative to be there with the mental health resources their students want and need.
Whatever resources are available at your institution, it’s invaluable to make sure your students know what is available to them. Give students the opportunity to utilize mental health services at every turn, so they know that their mental wellness matters to the school.
PROBLEM: COLLEGE STUDENTS AND UPCOMING GENERATIONS ARE STRUGGLING
In recent years, wellness concerns have shifted as college-age adults and even Generation Alpha (those born after 2010) are more openly struggling with their mental health more than ever before.
The rise of the pandemic caused students to experience an especially hard time with mental health issues. Some students who never had problems with their mental health even began to reel from the changes.
According to a survey published by Hobsons, 68 percent of surveyed students reported that their mental health was “somewhat” or “very” negatively affected by the pandemic.
Going into 2023, surveyed college students said that their biggest stressor is their own mental health struggles, according to Inside Higher Ed.
In the National College Health Assessment in spring 2022, a striking 75 percent of students reported moderate to serious psychological distress. Nearly 28 percent screened positive for suicidal behavior, and nearly 80 percent said they felt moderate or high stress.
Despite this, only 15 percent of students used mental health services on campus in the 2020-21 academic year, according to a Student Voice survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed.
Children and adolescents are also experiencing increased mental health issues, including ADHD, anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts on some occasions, according to the CDC.
As your institution works to welcome new students and nurture current students, not only is offering extensive mental health services important to student wellbeing, but marketing them is also crucial. Make sure your services are known and accessible, even if they aren’t actively seeking them out.
SOLUTIONS: OFFER MORE SUPPORT OPTIONS TO STUDENTS IN NEED
No campus is the same. The right combination of mental health resources for your campus may be different than another’s perfect formula, but ensuring current and future students know about the resources available to them is essential.
A few important things to note are the importance of engaging all your students, not just those who are actively looking for help, and ensuring you’re being transparent in your care models.
Often, the greatest source for discovering what your campus needs is at your fingertips: get students to weigh in. If anyone knows what your students want and need, it’s your students.
Think outside of the box. Sometimes it’s even worth partnering with other groups in your area to provide the services your campus needs.
Whether you offer peer support options, online services, private counseling spaces or any other resource to your students who are struggling, make sure your students know the resources are there. Create an open, safe line of communication through your marketing to make your services approachable.
Ways to promote these options is at recruitment events, prospective student visit days, through a series of emails throughout the year at important times, in first-year seminar classes, through faculty and throughout orientation days/weeks.
Here are a few options to consider implementing on your campus and marketing to your students in addition to traditional counseling. One of the largest barriers for students seeking help is the presence of extensive waitlists. Some of these options can provide immediate solutions and care to students.
Which of these care methods would be the most valuable for students at your institution? Conduct a survey to find out.
Faculty as “First Responders”
Faculty members are often the main university contacts for students, especially during and following the height of the pandemic. During this uncertain time, faculty needed to do more than teach — they needed to recognize when a student was struggling.
Because faculty members are often not equipped to complete this level of care, some universities have started mental health training, teaching faculty to watch for changes in behavior and signs of distress.
In many cases, students need a push in the right direction, according to the American Psychological Association. It can be as simple as reaching out to check in with the student. Some schools even offer a reporting system for faculty members to refer a student in need.
If your school hopes to utilize faculty as “first responders” for struggling students, ensure they are equipped with more than just the knowledge of services. Resident hall staff and room advisers can also help recognize at-risk students if trained to do so.
Consider these options for faculty supporters:
- Have a representative from the mental health services speak in every first-year seminar class to share the different resources and all the ways to access them.
- Train your faculty members to prepare for these crucial interactions.
- Provide faculty with email templates and print materials to easily refer students to mental health services.
- Provide every academic adviser with a table tent or poster to place in view of students whenever they come in to check-in.
Remember that if you are pushing that you have caring faculty to students, they need to follow through. Faculty and peer support can be some of the most important factors driving retention for those struggling with mental health.
Peer Support Options
It’s well known that people will often turn to friends and family for support as a first step. Young adults and youth have a strong influence on their peers.
Finding a way to offer structured peer support can be an invaluable tool to improving overall mental health on your campus. This could be anything from peer-education programs to peer coaching, peer-staffed hotlines and even anonymous, online peer-to-peer support platforms.
According to a report from the Mary Christie Institute, “Peer support can be a ‘bridge’ to professional counseling services and may help to bring reluctant students into a community of care.”
The authors continue to say that this is especially true of minority populations, including students of color and international students.
If you don’t already have a club/organization event for student-led groups, consider creating one and having one of the mental health support groups appear as a speaker during the event.
These mental health and wellbeing support groups would also be an asset to use during campus visits for prospective students or admitted students. Let current and prospective students know that you care about their well-being.
Some students either can’t make use of on-campus resources due to distance or prefer to access resources remotely for other reasons. Providing both on-campus and virtual counseling options is game-changing for those who need support.
“College is all about relationships. High touch combined with high tech,” Schmidt told Hanover Research.
Another virtual option that West Virginia University offers is a 24-7 crisis line, where students can text a trained counselor for support, guidance and an active listener. They also offer another line for callers who need that support or intervention.
Private Counseling Spaces
One barrier to counseling for students is the lack of a private space to speak in confidence to a counselor, according to Hanover Research. Many students live in dorms or in houses with other people, making them self-conscious and unwilling to pursue digital counseling options.
These topics are incredibly personal, and many students do not want others to overhear. Providing private rooms where there’s no interference or other people for students to be wary of is a great way to encourage students to use your services.
WHAT’S NEXT: FOLLOWING THROUGH
Don’t let your students’ mental health fly under the radar. It’s just as important as their physical health.
According to Hanover Research, 14 percent of students who drop out of post-secondary education cite their mental health as their main reason for leaving. In a time when retention averages around 66 percent, getting students to know about and utilize mental health resources can be crucial to raising retention rates.
Decrease the barriers to your mental health services. Students need to know that you care about their well-being. Show them that they made the right choice choosing your school by actively supporting them through their mental health struggles.
Set your students up for success. Consider what your institution has for mental health services to ensure your students have access to everything they need to have a healthy mind and the best college experience possible.
Market these services both online and in-person to prospective students and, most importantly, current students. Get students the help they need to not only survive through college but thrive through college.