When college students seek help for a mental health issue on campus – something they are doing more often – the place they usually go is the college counselling centre.
As a researcher who examines problems faced by college students in distress, I see a way to better support students’ mental health. In addition to offering individual counselling, colleges should also focus on what we in the mental health field refer to as population health and prevention.
These efforts can range from creating more shared spaces to increase social connections to stave off feelings of isolation, to reducing things on campus that threaten student well-being, such as discrimination and violence.
What’s behind the problem
Student mental health distress has escalated to high levels nationally. The American College Health Association found in 2019 that over the past year, 87 percent of college students felt overwhelmed by all they had to do, 66 percent felt overwhelming anxiety, 56 percent felt things were hopeless and 13 percent seriously considered suicide. Contributing factors include distressing and traumatic circumstances during college, such as assaults, in addition to academic performance demands.
The college experience is not the only factor, however. Students are also coming to college with preexisting mental health challenges. For instance, over 80 percent of students who think about suicide during college had first thought about suicide before college.
Some college campuses may add counselling staff to try to meet the increased demand for counselling centres, but not all campuses can afford to do this. Even if they do, it still might not be enough. Students need alternate ways beyond college counselling centres to address their mental health needs.
By being more proactive and equipping students to deal with mental health issues before they become too large to manage, fewer students will need crisis services – and those that need them will be able to get them sooner – because more students will have the tools to work through their problems earlier on their own.
To improve the overall health of their population of students, here are four areas where I think colleges should focus on.
1. Empower students
Colleges must help students assess their strengths and overall resilience. By empowering students with increased self-knowledge, they can more adeptly identify problems early and access supportive resources.
Interesting approach, and one to watch. If it works, I wonder if there is a way to adapt it for HS Seniors? Florida State launches ‘resilience’ project to teach students about effects of early trauma https://t.co/oCL46cJRsB
— Melissa Carleton (@MCarletonOhio) August 20, 2018
Campuses could help motivate and encourage students to monitor their progress through creating an online portal where students can access tools, such as those promoting skill development in the areas of mindfulness, time management and career reflection. There’s such an online portal – known as the Student Resilience Project – at the university where I teach, and results are promising.
2. Provide stress-management resources
Colleges and universities should create processes and tools for students to improve their ability to manage stress. For example, the campus could create a decision tree that helps students identify when and where to reach out to get help with their specific concerns.
A web-based portal can tell students where to locate campus-based support services, such as coaches, advisers and counsellors, or peer-to-peer education and support and skill-building groups. For an example of a program designed to increase social support in high schools and one that could work for colleges, see the Sources of Strength program.
3. Take preventive measures
Research shows that helping many people lower their risk improves the benefit for the larger population more than focusing on those at the highest risk.
This suggests that colleges should look at the factors that are contributing to stress – such as substance use, discrimination, assaults and the pressure around figuring out one’s major and career – and then work to reduce their influence. Promoting resources for early intervention in these areas can help students cope with stress and build time management skills.
4. Launch wellness campaigns
Colleges should create a wellness campaign. Students, faculty and staff should be trained in how to work together to improve the mental health of everyone on campus, including identifying others in distress, intervening with them and referring them to help.
SASSE 🌸is launching a campaign to urge Syracuse University’s administration to install health &wellness machines on campus. Health products need to be accessible and affordable 🗣 please sign the petition here 👉 https://t.co/wvCTdm2ghE pic.twitter.com/DgBfOWpNfN
— SASSE (@sassesyr) October 28, 2018
The campus should advertise their vision and initiatives to get the message out to all members of the community. These wellness campaigns are aspirational at the moment, but I am currently working with several colleges to make these campaigns a reality.
When colleges shift their focus to population health and prevention, in my view it should lead to an improvement in the health and well-being of students and free up counselling centers to treat the students most in need of mental health support.