6 Ways to Improve Mental Health on Campus
There’s a mental health crisis on college campuses: in a national survey, nearly three quarters of students reported moderate or severe psychological distress. Counseling centers are overwhelmed, and higher education leaders are realizing that more needs to be done to create a culture of care and better support students’ well-being.
So, what does that look like? Here are six ways higher education leaders can work to improve mental health on campus during this time of enhanced need.
1. Develop a diverse leadership team
Addressing student mental health isn’t solely assigned to campus health centers. Leaders from various departments and teams, and even students, should be engaged and participate so that it becomes ingrained in the culture. Consider creating a diverse interdisciplinary leadership team that collaborates and brainstorms initiatives to address mental health on campus.
Who best understands the campus community’s needs? Members of the campus community. One department alone doesn’t have eyes and ears in enough places to have a thorough grasp on what’s actually going on. Collaboration across departments can provide better insights.
2. Make campus mental health resources easily accessible
Mental health resources should be easily accessible — and we’re not just talking about counseling. We’re seeing higher education institutions expand their offerings to include immediate and 24/7 resources to prevent students from slipping through the cracks. This stepped-care model ensures students get the level of support they need when they need it, giving various levels of resources to students and reserving immediate intervention for those in the most need.
3. Offer additional resources that focus on specific populations
Racial/ethnic, gender, and sexual minorities often face more mental health challenges. Students from minority groups are more likely to face “social determinants” of poor mental health — like poverty, discrimination, food insecurity, and housing insecurity.
Unfortunately, cultural stigma, lack of awareness, and inaccessibility often prevent them from getting support when they need it. Dedicating offices and organizing student groups can help build community, give students a sense of belonging, and give them support from peers, leaders, and professionals.
Everyone needs to feel seen, and it can be life-saving. Recent research from The Trevor Project found that LGBTQ+ college students with access to LGBTQ+-specific student services had 44% lower odds of attempting suicide compared to those without access.
4. Focus on the first-year experience
Research reveals that the first year of college is the ideal time to promote mental health awareness and prevention strategies. The changes during that first year can be overwhelming. A new school in a new city, state, or even country. Most are away from home for the first time ever, are taking on more responsibilities, and haven’t yet established friendships. It’s not surprising that nearly half of first-year college students in a correlational study demonstrated greater than average levels of stress and depressive symptoms.
“First year experience” programs should include mental health topics and training to help students transition from high school to college, and set a solid foundation of well-being and support for their college career.
Watch our Webinar, Mental Health on Campus: Supporting First-Year Students, to learn how two colleges support their incoming students by mandating mental health training.
5. Create peer support groups
When facing a serious mental health issue, most college students turn to a peer before anyone else. There’s often more comfort turning to a friend than a professional.
Culturally-competent peer counseling can be especially beneficial. A 2021 survey conducted by the Born This Way Foundation found that Black students, Transgender students, and first-generation students are more likely to use peer counseling.
“We’ve seen the mental health needs of the college student change and evolve,” said Dr. Victor Schwartz, Chief Medical Officer at The Jed Foundation (JED). “We know peer support on campus is a critical resource, since two-thirds of college students who are feeling suicidal will tell a friend first.”
Dr. Schwartz was one of the subject matter experts who partnered with Kognito to help develop updates to our At-Risk Mental Health for Students simulation, which equips college students to support peers in distress. You can learn more about this interactive role-play experience for students here.
6. Provide mental health training for educators and students
Improving mental health on campus should be a campus-wide initiative that involves the whole community. Educators and students often want to support one another, but may not always know the best way to help. Or sometimes students want to seek help for themselves, but don’t know the best self-care strategies.
Offering mental health training can help students and faculty recognize signs of distress, engage in meaningful conversation, and refer them to further support when needed. Our Higher Ed Mental Health Suite prepares learners to lead real-life conversations around mental health and suicide prevention that build resilience, a strong campus culture and strengthens relationships. When members of the campus community know how to better help themselves and each other, the campus environment and culture improves.