Beyond awareness: Colleges teach how to help the mentally distressed

Discourse around mental health may be increasing, but awareness doesn’t always lend itself to action.

New research shows that while faculty and students may recognize signs of psychological distress in others on campus, many feel unprepared to approach and help those in need.

There has been a visible push to improve student well-being on campus—manifesting in yoga classes, destress activities and therapy animals, for example—but this is not the same as addressing mental disorders, says Kelly Davis, manager of peer advocacy, supports and services at Mental Health America, a nonprofit dedicated to mental health awareness.

“Schools invested a lot of money in mental health awareness, but not resources,” she says.

Nearly one-third of students are dealing with mental health issues, from panic and anxiety disorders to depression, at any given time, according to a University of Michigan study.

There are a range of roadblocks for those seeking mental health support from their higher ed institutions. Students sometimes have to wait up to a month for requested counseling services on campus.

Then, many colleges can provide only a finite number of sessions per student, which may not be sufficient for the continued support needed by those coping with mental disorders.

For out-of-state students, this may be the only help they can access, as their in-network doctors aren’t an option, says Davis. In response, some colleges and universities are working with students’ insurance providers to partner with local health care professionals on discounted psychology services.

Fear of missteps or liability often results in little to no action from administrators when it comes to engaging students with signs of mental distress. This same fear prevents a bigger push for peer groups centered on this topic.

“Students have to survive their mental health problems all the other hours outside of the one or two they spend in counseling each week,” says Davis. “A peer network that is available 24/7 can do a lot to replace old support systems, or create one where there wasn’t one before.”

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