How colleges can provide strong mental health supports in 5 steps

With 'students in the struggle', it is imperative that institutions listen to them and offer a robust suite of resources.

The No. 1 priority on the minds of senior college administrators heading into the fall was student well-being, according to a survey done by the American Association of Colleges and Universities and The Center for University Excellence at American University. That is not surprising given that nearly 90% of students are feeling some form of distress, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For campus leaders intent on following through on the mission to support students, the moment to act and respond is now, and ensure that those strategies already in place are working effectively. “[Students] are in the struggle,” said Mays Imad, assistant professor of biology at Connecticut College, during the AAC&U’s annual meeting. “Rather than making assumptions and coming up with big plans, one of the things we’re trying to underscore is: Start with the students. Listen to the students. They are the experts in how we can move forward.”

During their session at AAC&U, several students from Conn College shared their own experiences and what they’ve experienced during this unparalleled moment:

  • “I really struggled with my passion for learning and being able to retain information.”
  • “I definitely felt isolated, and struggled a bit with that. My mental health took a toll.”
  • “I had to study remotely halfway across the world from my institution. It’s unpleasant times. It’s been very much a roller-coaster.”
  • “Luckily I was surrounded by a very strong support system. My peers didn’t have that.”

There are profound implications for institutions that don’t properly address this epidemic, not only on the potential for students to self-harm but also the impacts it can have on their bottom lines. If students struggle with academics or feel socially or emotionally isolated, they might decide to leave college, pulling down retention and completion numbers.

Connecticut College faculty and student leaders have been studying ways to help heal those in need and prevent losses from occurring. They say a holistic campus approach, one rooted in being more “trauma-informed” and “asset-focused” can instill change that uplifts students. But it is more than that. Institutions must be committed to providing support and training to faculty and staff, embrace diverse and often underserved populations and be willing to financially back mental healthcare initiatives and clinicians. “Students are saying, ‘We want to be resilient, but we don’t know how,’” Imad said. “What are we doing at an institutional level to help them get there?”

Five steps for change

Students Eilis Reardon, Lovisa Werner, Alyss Humphrey and Skylar Magee shared some of the work Connecticut College is doing to enjoy better outcomes, including some that helped them personally. There are five themes that might help others struggling to make a dent in the crisis on their own campuses.

More from UB: How the mental health crisis is crushing college counseling centers

The first is helping students develop mental immunity. Werner said first-year orientations often cover academic basics but don’t really address “your physiology, neurobiology, emotional and mental health.” Students must understand how learning works and how emotions can impact it.

“Invite students to offer brief testimonies to highlight how they negotiate and cope with stress, to learn from each other how to recognize and deal with stress,” Werner said. “This can be done via weekly video messages from students sharing with each other. Hold regular symposia where students, family and friends are invited to learn about the complexity of learning and how toxic stress can impact students. Work with student government to organize town hall meetings to learn from students. Reach out to offices of veteran students services and diversity, equity and inclusion and other offices to learn more about the students they serve.”

The second is helping students regulate those emotions and reduce stress. Reardon recommends “holding a college Colloquium—about the science behind emotions, and why emotions are so essential to a person’s well being.” She also said providing a prominent space on campus for students to vent or work on projects to help deal with stress is also important. Colleges can offer a variety of therapies (art, music, pet) to help them cope, especially during exams.

The third is to ensure that the supports your institution provides covers students from all backgrounds. And then to have counselors that can relate to the populations they are serving. “it was so refreshing to see a counselor that looked like me,” Humphrey said. “It was so nice to have someone who had similar experiences to me.”

The fourth is continuing to destigmatize mental health. Students are in distress and often dealing with issues beyond schooling. McGee said it is crucial not only to have resources that help teach students about mental health but that training programs exist for faculty and staff. She said as waits for appointments are sometimes long, having a quick therapy session for 15-20 minutes with an impartial resource can be helpful. But the big key is making sure those clinicians and counselors are not burned out.

The fifth is awareness around long COVID. The impacts, Mays said, are real in the research she has done – from brain fog to chronic fatigue. So asking how many students have had COVID and how many might be impacted. Michael Reder from Conn College’s Center for Teaching and Learning says “45% of students report having COVID and 65% of those reporting has said that it had since Thanksgiving.”

Beyond the guidance, Conn College has taken a number of steps to help students and faculty. They’ve done workshops on stress tolerance that have been heavily promoted by their dean and the president. They’ve done workshops for the entire first-year class on the brain, learning and stress. They’ve pressed faculty to design courses that are flexible, with expectations that are reasonable and offer check-ins on student well-being. The goal of all of it is to provide a community of care for both students and faculty.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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