How Colleges Today Are Supporting Student Mental Health
Colleges and universities are addressing well-being in students with new and innovative approaches.
“Why are we ignoring our college students?” a frustrated colleague asked me last week. With so much focus on social-emotional learning, trauma-sensitive classrooms, and student well-being in K-12 schools, my friend argued passionately that young adults need our attention, too.
The challenge is clear. In 2018, researchers who surveyed almost 14,000 first-year college students (in eight countries) found that 35 percent struggled with a mental illness, particularly depression or anxiety. Here in the U.S., college students seeking mental health services report that anxiety is their #1 concern—and it is on the rise.
With demands for mental health support typically exceeding resources, how are colleges and universities addressing student well-being both inside and outside of the classroom? The emerging programs, new online resources, and innovative approaches to classroom teaching described below may encourage and inspire you—whether you’re an educator, staff member, or administrator who wants to prioritize student well-being at your school, or a concerned parent with a child heading off to college.
Increased awareness from the start
Colleges provide orientation sessions on drug and alcohol use, sexual violence prevention, and other student health and lifestyle topics, so why not address mental health more directly? Many colleges are beginning to proactively share mental health information with students during face-to-face orientation sessions.
Approaches vary from traditional presentations and panel discussions, to role plays, short videos, and student testimonials followed by small group discussions. Here, students learn how to recognize mental illness symptoms, where to find resources and support, and how to talk to friends who might be struggling.
At Northwestern University, student feedback led orientation organizers to shift their focus from expert speakers to student testimonials. This past fall, student actors read the narratives of alumni describing their mental health challenges and how they sought help.
Storytelling likely resonated more with the student audience because they could relate more personally to the details shared. And with the onslaught of information students receive at the start of college, it’s crucial to present mental health information in a way that is relevant and memorable. This approach may also help struggling students to feel less isolated.
Because the stigma associated with mental illness continues, stories and open conversations that normalize mental health concerns are critical.
Free mental health screenings
Another way to counter the stigma is to encourage students to monitor their mental health the same way they monitor their physical health. To that end, some universities are normalizing mental health checkups by offering free, readily accessible screenings for their students.
For example, Drexel University’s Recreation Center has a mental-health kiosk where students can “get a checkup from the neck up.” Students can stop by for a couple of minutes to answer a quick series of questions on a private screen. At the end of the screening, students receive information regarding additional mental health resources and supports, as needed.
Currently, UCLA offers a more formalized screening option. As part of an interdisciplinary research project to solve major global health problems, researchers there are conducting massive online screenings to measure anxiety and depression in 100,000 students, staff, and faculty.
This four-year study, the UCLA Depression Grand Challenge, features a 15-minute online assessment where participants learn whether they might have mild to severe anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts. As appropriate, they can receive mental health treatment, including counseling services, a referral to receive trained peer support, or the option to participate in an interactive online program called This Way Up. In addition, researchers monitor participants throughout the four years.
Campus-wide courses, programs, and initiatives
Programs like This Way Up, designed by Professor Gavin Andrews and his team at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney (affiliated with the University of New South Wales), help students to better understand the emotions they are experiencing (e.g., fear, anxiety, stress, sadness), connect with a clinician who can supervise their progress, and take free self-help courses online (like “Coping with Stress,” “Intro to Mindfulness,” or “Managing Insomnia”).
As universities are also noting a decline in student resilience—the ability to bounce back from negative experiences—Florida State University recently launched an online trauma resilience training tool developed through the Institute of Family Violence Studies and their College of Social Work. The Student Resilience Project developers recognized that many students coming to their university have experienced “significant family and community stress” and that stress can affect their learning. Florida State University now requires all incoming freshmen and transfer students to participate in the training, which features videos, animations, and TED-talk-style informational sessions to foster student strengths and coping strategies.
Other programs in the U.S. take a more preventive approach to mental health challenges by promoting student resilience throughout the school year. Stanford’s Resilience Project features personal storytelling as well as academic skills coaching. In a range of online video clips, many students and alumni describe the intense self-doubt they experienced when they arrived on campus. One alum admitted, “I really remember thinking, ‘I don’t belong here. I shouldn’t be here’—like I was an admissions mistake,” while another confessed, “I was not used to working really hard and not being successful.”
Sharing stories of perseverance, they ultimately reveal some of the insights they learned along the way—like “Your career is not a grade that you got on a piece of paper” and “Our life is a draft. It’s constantly in revision.” To celebrate learning from mistakes, students also creatively share “epic failures” through comedy, poetry, videos, and songs in a yearly event called “Stanford, I Screwed Up.”
In light of the shortage of mental health providers on campuses, online resources and programmatic events like these seem to fill a crucial need. However, many students still prefer face-to-face support.
To provide that, the University of Wisconsin—Superior opened The Pruitt Center for Mindfulness and Well-Being in August 2018, with a mission to promote mindfulness and well-being among students, faculty and staff, and the surrounding community. A few of their campus-wide offerings include mindfulness workshops for new faculty and resident assistants; weekly yoga and mindfulness classes for students, faculty, and staff; and a curated collection of mindfulness and well-being resources at their university library.
Talking about it
Despite all the resources available, students aren’t necessarily verbalizing their own mental health struggles—and many don’t know exactly how to help peers who appear to be lonely, sad, or distant. How do we start the conversation?
At least 350 colleges now utilize an online simulation program called Kognito that helps students learn how to talk to friends who may be suffering emotionally, directing them to appropriate resources. When students enter Kognito’s virtual campus, they learn more about mental health from a handful of virtual students, and they talk with a virtual student in distress. After trying out several different approaches, they learn the most effective ways to respond to their virtual peer.
Texting for support is another option. The University of Sioux Falls is one of the first South Dakota colleges to offer a free texting hotline for their students. The nonprofit Text4Hope aims to provide college students with options if they are worried about a particular friend, overwhelmed by academic stress themselves, or feeling lonely, depressed, or suicidal. Trained members of the Helpline Center are ready to respond to texts 24/7. They also invite students to check out their Instagram feed at #sdhopenotes, featuring notes of encouragement that students leave around colleges and universities throughout the state (e.g., “Be true to you!,” “Go girl!,” “Life is not a solo act. People love you!,” “I survived because someone listened…even through texting”).
On a much larger scale, Active Minds is a national organization dedicated to mental health advocacy that currently hosts more than 450 campus chapters. Alison Malmon founded the organization in 2003 as a result of her brother Brian’s suicide. “After my brother’s death, and knowing how preventable it was, I resolved—no matter what—to do something to change the way we approach mental health in this country,” she says. Malmon wants other students to understand that they don’t need to feel ashamed if they are experiencing anxiety and depression—and that seeking help is a sign of strength rather than weakness.
In a 2018 study of Active Minds, researchers surveyed 1,129 students at 12 universities in California three times during the school year to assess their involvement with the Active Minds organization and their resulting attitudes and knowledge about mental health. Students with low to moderate engagement with Active Minds at the start of the school year reported an increase in mental health awareness and a decrease in negative, stigmatizing attitudes about mental illness by the end of the year. Most importantly, they claimed that they were more likely to help another student in crisis (e.g., by providing emotional support or connecting them with services) after involvement in student-run events through Active Minds.
With a Speaker’s Bureau sharing personal stories of hope, a “Send Silence Packing” traveling exhibit to increase awareness and prevent suicide, as well as peer-run mental health clubs and support networks, Active Minds is opening up the conversation around mental health and leveraging the power of peer-to-peer outreach to change campus culture.
Well-being practices woven into coursework
Apart from supporting peer-led efforts and other campus initiatives, college instructors and professors can encourage student well-being by directly modeling preventive strategies and coping skills in class. If you are a professor, however, you may wonder how you could possibly squeeze another learning objective into your syllabus.
Try carving out a few minutes at the start of each class. Open by playing a brief guided mindfulness practice like this five-minute mindful breathing exercise from UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. Or, if you’re comfortable, simply lead and model the practice yourself.
In my own teacher education courses at Seattle University, I began each day with a “mindful moment” where students reoriented themselves to our classroom space. During this “nervous system reboot,” students maintained a straight yet relaxed posture and anchored their attention on a sound, a body part, or their own breath. Their only instruction was to gently redirect their attention to that anchor each time their mind wandered.
To supplement each opening practice, I also shared a relevant research study, additional stress management strategies, or wellness programs that students could explore after class, which only required about five minutes of class time. After a couple of months of practice, students across our teacher education program started asking for the “mindful moment” in all of their classes.
You may be interested in a more comprehensive approach to addressing student well-being in your courses, but remain hesitant to use a lot of class time. If so, consider a social-emotional learning (SEL) project recently piloted by faculty at the University of Wisconsin—Superior and Thiel College in Pennsylvania. Shevaun Stocker and Kristel Gallagher’s “SuccEssfuL (SEL) in Stats” program can be easily adapted for any course.
It features 15 short weekly activities for students to complete outside of class (apart from an initial activity for the first class day). Students can walk through activities in the curriculum guide with easy-to-follow sections, including “Why is it important for me to do this [exercise]?,” “Why does it work?,” “What do I have to do?,” “What do I need to submit?,” and “What if I want to know more?”
Stocker and Gallagher adapted most of the exercises from the GGSC’s Greater Good in Action website, including the Self-Compassionate Letter (to practice encouraging and being kind to yourself), Use Your Strengths (to draw on your skills in creative ways), Finding Silver Linings (to change your perspective on a negative event), and Best Possible Self (to foster optimism as you imagine your future).
In a small pilot study of the “SuccEssfuL (SEL) in Stats” program, students in statistics courses at two universities reported a decrease in math anxiety. By the end of the course, they also described a change in the way they perceived their stress—more as a challenge rather than a threat to their well-being.
The mental health struggles our students face may feel daunting at times, but there are so many opportunities to pitch in and offer our support. We can play a role as mental health advocates by talking more openly about mental health symptoms, sharing available resources, regularly modeling practices that enhance daily well-being, and actively participating in campus-wide advocacy efforts.
As many of these programs encourage honest and supportive conversations about mental health, let’s do our best to be available and pay attention. When young adults do open up and share, we need to do all we can to listen.
By: Amy L. Eva, Ph.D.