Back-to-school season is a time of new beginnings for college students. While evoking a fresh start, it is also a reminder to renew attention on college student mental health. What can colleges and universities do to bring awareness to students in distress, and better meet their needs?
Adjusting to College Life
Student mental health is a growing priority for institutions of higher education given the prevalence of stressors during this phase of life. College is a difficult time for students, especially for first-years, since it’s a time of extreme transition. Students may be dealing with:
- Higher levels of stress from increased independence, responsibilities, and time management
- Adjusting to a new living environment
- Fitting in and making new friends
- Balancing academic demands, extracurricular activities, and social life
- Planning for the future (pressure to navigate an area of study and career goals)
What the Research on College Student Mental Health Tells Us
New research surveying 67,000 college students shows that three out of four students have experienced at least one stressful life event in the last year. One-fifth of those students have experienced six or more stressful events. Exposure to stressful events is strongly associated with mental health diagnoses, self-harm, and suicidality.
College students also are at an age that can co-occur with the onset of mental health disorders. For example, the average age at onset of major depression is in one’s mid-20s.
Finally, data shows a gap in the number of students who seek mental health services for themselves. Only 40% of students with mental illness seek help and those who do not often cite stigma as a deterrent. How can students be better motivated to seek the help they need?
Playing a Role in College Student Mental Health
Campus mental health programs and wellness services certainly play a central role in serving students across the spectrum of mental health awareness, mental health intervention, and treatment. But many people may not realize that everyone on a campus – faculty, staff, and students – have a role to play.
Faculty and staff, who get to know students through an academic or extracurricular lense, can see changes in students over time. Some staff, such as athletic coaches, see students on a regular ongoing basis and may be more attuned to changes in motivation or attention toward an activity. Professors or instructors may be familiar with students from an academic standpoint, monitoring attendance or exam grades over time. In either case, staying attuned to changes in student behavior and appearance, which can be warning signs of psychological distress, may warrant reaching out to have a conversation and offer support for that student. Some universities are already taking this approach to connect students with support services.
Student peer relationships are also a powerful connection for supporting students in distress. Friends may be especially aware of warning signs or changes among their friends suggesting that they need mental health support. Student groups like chapters of Active Minds may serve as support networks already in place. Resident advisors, for example, are often trained to guide students to appropriate resources on campus.
Across both of these groups, greater awareness of one’s role as a gatekeeper, someone who can talk with students and determine if they should seek mental health services, is important. In a survey of over 65,000 faculty, staff and students, 87% agreed that it is part of their to connect students experiencing psychological distress with mental health services. Through training, building this awareness across an entire campus can make that campus a more supportive environment for all students.
Thinking Beyond the Walls of the Counseling Center
A campuswide approach, that is, targeting all members of a campus to raise awareness, combat stigma, and open dialogues, can foster an environment where students in distress feel more motivated to pursue mental health treatment. Connecting more students to mental health support increases student quality of life, which improves retention and academic performance for students. For universities and colleges, this means better institutional engagement in the future.