What’s more than a pandemic problem
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. colleges and universities have faced a mounting mental health crisis impacting students of higher education. Compounding this issue, traditional counseling centers at schools can no longer mitigate the issue and keep up with the surging demand.
How bad is it? In a national survey conducted in 2021, nearly 75% of students reported moderate or severe psychological distress (National College Health Assessment, American College Health Association, 2021).
A comprehensive study by the Healthy Minds Network and Sarah Lipson, a Boston University School of Public Health assistant professor of health law, policy, and management, resulted in startling findings. Their survey of 350,000 students at over 300 campuses, showed college student mental health consistently declined nationally from 2013 to 2021 with an overall 135% increase in depression and 110% increase in anxiety.
Moreover, the study showed mental health problems on those campuses had actually doubled!
Lipson and her colleagues also discovered mental issues take a disproportionate toll on students of color. The study became the first long-term, multicampus one of its kind to outline differences in treatment and the pervasiveness of mental health issues across ethnicity and race.
What’s causing this downward trend?
Although today’s students tend to seek out mental health treatment sooner than prior generations did, collegiate life can be especially overwhelming for those suffering from the impact of COVID-19, mass violence, and social injustice — on top of financial challenges and their ongoing balancing act of school and work schedules.
Freshman year for many reveals another reality for newly enrolled undergrads: Living apart from the direct emotional support of parents and siblings. That first semester comes with many surprises, and many aren’t prepared to navigate all the challenges alone.
Also factor in that these young adults haven’t even finished developing physically yet. The brain’s prefrontal cortex does not finish developing and maturing until the mid- to late 20s. This area is responsible for skills like planning, prioritizing, and controlling impulses (National Institutes of Health, NIH Publication No. 20-MH-8078), and yet each student must absorb a slew of new information, people, and places — often all at once.
According to Lipson, “75% of lifetime mental health problems will onset by age 24.” Given that fact, it’s easy to see why they need our help. Addressing the support gap, however, takes a concerted effort including a devoted effort by faculty and staff.
Mental wellness to the rescue
Maybe as an educator, you are looking for ways you can help support your students’ mental health to navigate through this ‘new normal’ world. This article will delve into some simple ways to do that.
6 immediate steps to help improve student mental wellness —
Educators like you can learn how to start changing the course of this trend by taking the following steps. Not just for students, but for the local and global communities we share as well as society as a whole.
1. Get creative with your approach in helping students
Perhaps your colleagues and you are already helping learners to receive at least some degree of mental wellness support. Rethinking the way you do this, however, could greatly improve their future wellbeing.
Increasingly, schools have established more resources like same-day intake and single counseling sessions (versus making students in need wait months). Has your school done this? If so, encourage those needing help to connect to these services. Experts have found this new approach to be more practical than providing only traditional therapy to an entire student population.
Just remember to help manage student expectations of the system as campus clinics can’t always see them at a moment’s notice. By dialing ‘9-8-8’ on their mobile phone though anyone can reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline — any time, any day.
If your school doesn't have on-campus support, a great resource of national hotlines can be found on the American Psychological Association website.
Thinking even a little out of the box can be what some students most welcome. For instance, if a learner is struggling in one of your courses, they may benefit from a workshop on sleep, time or stress management, and goal setting.
“This increase in demand has challenged institutions to think holistically and take a multifaceted approach to supporting students,” says Kevin Shollenberger, Johns Hopkins University’s vice provost for student health and well-being. “It really has to be everyone’s responsibility at the university to create a culture of well-being.”
2. Be more aware
It can’t hurt to become more observant both in and outside the lab, lecture hall, or classroom.
Someone right under your nose who’s enrolled in one of your classes may be experiencing a very challenging time, but perhaps you can become that vulnerable student’s first line of support at the school.
Maybe several of your students are dealing with all the woes from the pandemic and facing loneliness or roommate conflicts for the very first time. Confidential peer counseling could be a valuable resources for them.
A kind, sincere suggestion by a trusted professor to seek professional help could be more than welcomed by the learner. Far from home, you could be that authority figure who cared enough to reach out, something they may remember for the rest of their life.
Signs a student may be facing a mental crisis:
- Dramatic body weight changes
- Appearing disheveled (e.g.: lethargic, inebriated, etc.)
- No longer submitting any classwork
- Often tardy for class
- Exhibiting sudden behavioral changes (i.e.: extreme mood swings)
Any one or combination of these signs may indicate they are facing a situational or more grave mental health issue. And, there are others of course.
Not all the signs are obvious ones though. Many go unseen and unheard. Students may find it easier to hide their sorrow, but not their happiness.
Keep in mind that students with acute matters (e.g.: sexual assault post-trauma, emotional abuse, depression, and eating disorders) will require one-on-one therapy with professional counselors. Never attempt to counsel them yourselves. Urge them to reach out to a licensed medical professional for treatment.
Sometimes, academic advisers, athletic coaches, and staff are formally trained to spot and monitor students who appear distressed. Even Penn State’s food service staff are empowered to refer students exhibiting eating disorders.
3. Help students tap into their school’s wellness resources
Just asking a student, “Is everything going okay?” can be telling. Their answer might reveal they need help getting assistance, especially if facing a type of emotional or physical communication barrier.
So prepare for this! Be sure you’re aware of all the school’s mental wellness resources on campus and online support and how you can react.
DukeReach at Duke University, for instance, allows anyone on campus to communicate concern about a student if uncertain how to proceed. Trained providers can then offer a form of support such as a welfare check.
Find out about your school’s referral and reporting systems and how to strictly abide by them. Now’s the time to know. Not after the fact.
Your referral may include calling the counseling center to make an appointment on behalf of a troubled student who may be less likely to seek help on their own. Other learners may just need a teacher to suggest a wellness workshop.
Shollenberger emphasizes, “Faculty aren’t expected to be counselors, just to show a sense of care that they notice something might be going on, and to know where to refer students.”
When students come to class after hearing about (or even witnessing/experiencing) a major traumatic event, just having a teacher encourage a class discussion about that topic can help appease them emotionally — versus a teacher ‘sweeping it under the rug.’ At Johns Hopkins, Shollenberger and his team worked with faculty on how to do this after students felt disturbed the Ukraine War wasn’t mentioned in class.
4. Encourage mindfulness
Do your students practice mindfulness? Many may not even know what it means. By explaining it, you can possibly help them to help themselves to mental wellness.
Mindfulness can help individuals to reflect and assess new information, but also manage their own thoughts. It can enable us to avoid anxious feelings when we learn to step back and focus on the moment.
Students will find it overwhelming to study and absorb details and concepts under duress. Anyone would. But, when a student can just be present in the moment, they can observe and absorb more and respond more appropriately.
Right about now, you may be thinking, “Hey, I could benefit from practicing mindfulness more myself.” After all, we’re all human. No one is immune to distress.
Ashley Lodge, Global Mindfulness Lead for Pearson says, “Understanding the two modes of mind, ‘doing’ and ‘being’, and being able to shift the gear between the two, helped me better navigate daily life. It’s not some kind of quick fix. It takes daily practice (meditation) to help rewire the brain towards calmer, wiser ways of thinking and approaching life.”
Many schools support cultural mindfulness, too. Their student counselors will at times immerse themselves within academic units, becoming cultural experts. They study how engineering learners may, for instance, differ from their liberal arts counterparts or vice versa. Meanwhile, it presents an opportunity to be more accessible to them.
At Pearson, we actively practice mindfulness by asking “What if?” and relentlessly innovating new possibilities for everyone with speed, agility, and integrity. It’s not ‘lip service.’ We truly want to leave a lasting impact on everyone we serve and hope you do, too.
5. Consider which students are most at risk
Certain learners are much more likely to require critical mental health support and treatment than others.
The Healthy Minds Network/Sarah Lipson study also found half of American Indian/Alaskan Native college students by the 2019 and 2020 semesters were screening positive for depression. Not a trivial fact at all, but a serious challenge when it comes to learning, coping skills for life, and advancing their communities.
Other groups have their own tendencies toward certain mental illnesses. Although the highest rate of non-suicidal self-injury and eating disorders are with white students, non-white groups experience the most anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and other mental health issues, according to the data.
Much is being done though to address the issues. Somewhat informal groups called “counselor chats,” can be helpful for reaching underserved groups such as first-generation college students, international learners, and students of color who aren’t as likely to seek services at campus counseling centers.
At Johns Hopkins University, counselors often facilitate meetings through partnerships that support specific populations like LGBTQ students. Their “Chat with a Counselor” online drop-in mental health service offers informal, confidential, and one-on-one visits for students.
Low-income students are also at risk. Being mindful of this reality can go a long way in establishing trust with them and helping them succeed.
6. Stay informed and be part of the solution
Do you know how your own school is tackling its student mental health crisis? If not, it’s critical you find out right away. Educate yourself on what can be done by learning the effective ways other colleges or universities are succeeding and bring them to the attention of your administration as soon as possible. We’re all in this together!
What’s working at your school? What’s not and why? New opportunities may exist for your campus health clinic to implement soon or the near future.
Which threats can be averted or mitigated? As an educator, you may have the knowledge, experience, personality traits, or communication skills to participate in a new wellness initiative. Yes, you too, marketing, music education, and social study professors! Which lessons can we apply as learned from business, culture, sociology or history?
Many schools have been working full-time already to think out of the box and apply new methods. For instance, have you heard of “Let’s Talk” programs? Students can just drop in for an informal one-on-one session with a counselor.
More and more, colleges and universities are contracting with telehealth platforms to ensure that services are available whenever students need them while adding on-campus and virtual resources through apps. Maybe your school is, too.
Penn State offers a counselor-staffed crisis line that’s available anytime to students who are ready to talk or requesting an urgent in-person response. Meanwhile, Johns Hopkins started a behavioral health crisis support program that dispatches crisis clinicians with public safety officers to handle wellness checks.
Those are just a few examples we can all learn from.
By creating a culture of wellness with your colleagues, staff and students, you can help reverse this downward trend, one learner at a time.
Educating ourselves though is the proactive first step.