Success in higher education requires equal access to mental health support

College students have been facing rising mental health challenges for years, but the pandemic exacerbated this worrisome phenomenon.
Omar Garriott

The pandemic has had a very real impact on the mental health of college students. Study after study shows how the COVID-induced stresses of social disconnection have taken a toll on young adults, while exacerbating pre-existing challenges around well-being.

Now, institutions are figuring out how to implement interventions to effectively address these challenges. Doing so starts with understanding the specific mental health challenges students are facing — as well as the very real barriers they feel to accessing the resources that can help.

Listening and then acting on student sentiment around issues, stigma and barriers to access related to mental health isn’t just vital for student wellbeing and inculcating a sense of belonging. It’s also fundamental to moving the needle on retention and ultimately graduation. Hundreds of schools around the world are now proving this impact is possible because of experience management technology that unlocks new data and insights across the entire student experience. This information, largely missing until now, is mission-critical to helping students adjust to a new normal.

Student perceptions of available resources

College students have been facing rising mental health challenges for years, but the pandemic exacerbated this worrisome phenomenon. Nearly all college students in the U.S. (94%) have experienced remote or virtual schooling over the past two years, and 39% say it negatively impacted their mental health, according to research from Qualtrics. But in the wake of this crisis, the majority say their institutions either don’t have mental health resources or that there are problems with the resources available.

Breaking that down, over one in ten (13%) of college students say their institution does not have mental health resources, and another fifth (16%) say they don’t know whether it does, adding up to nearly one in three students overall not being able to access the resources they need.

In a worst-case scenario, students need to know they can turn to their school for help. As it stands, just 57% of students say they would use the resources available through their institution in a crisis, leaving many students vulnerable. To truly understand what’s happening on campuses, institutions need to answer the what but also the why — in order to proactively spot and address concerns before they become intractable.

Among students who say their institution offers mental health help, nearly two-thirds (63%) say there are inadequacies with the programs, including not knowing what is available (29%), long wait times (20%) and only short-term treatments available (19%).

Meeting students where they are

To help students access mental health resources that they might or might not know are available, it’s important to meet them where they are, which isn’t always by email or a school website.

An Oklahoma technical school for teens and adults dramatically increased student use of mental health services after implementing a QR-code based system powered by Qualtrics. The application, available to students through Canadian Valley Technical School’s social media sites, allows students to scan a QR code in private, answer a very short series of questions, and then instantly be connected to a school counselor. The entire process, which is designed to lessen the number of students who might otherwise suffer in silence, takes less than two minutes.

Owing to the early success of this outreach, CV Tech is expanding the program outside of social media and to new areas like bathroom stalls as students have returned to in-person learning. In addition to providing survey responses, Qualtrics provides CV Tech with trends, insights and opportunities based on responses.

Tapping into the power of advanced analytics allows schools to make sense of and drive actions in response to both structured and unstructured student feedback across channels — via surveys as well as social media, contact centers and more. Combining solicited insights with the ability to make sense of unsolicited data is the only way to get a complete and current picture of the experience your students are having.

Showing students that you understand

Students don’t have survey fatigue. They want to use their voice and make their views known. What many of them have is action fatigue: The sense that their feedback is falling into an abyss. Schools must show they understand by taking action on both the individual and institutional levels. With actionable insights, it’s possible to make lasting improvements to student wellbeing and close gaps in understanding between students and administrators. This could be key to improving the student experience overall, from academics to social life, increasing feelings of community and inclusivity, and helping those enrolled access the full value of their education.

As higher education faces an ongoing enrollment crisis, only half of current college students (55%) agree the education they’re receiving is worth their tuition. This research also reveals that there is a sharp disconnect between students and administrators when it comes to how happy students are with the social and academic aspects of college. For example, seventy-eight percent of administrators say students are satisfied with their social experience, while just 58% of students say they are.

However, students who feel their institutions understand what’s important to them report higher levels of satisfaction with their school overall. Students who feel understood have 41 percentage point higher (89% vs 48%) levels of satisfaction with their academic experience as well as 24 percentage point higher (67% vs. 43%) levels of satisfaction with their social experience.

Students don’t feel understood when a school asks only about their academic experience at the end of a semester. Rather, they feel heard when they are engaged in personalized ways throughout the year on every key facet of their journey — and especially when schools can show they’re listening by actively providing solutions to their challenges. This type of engagement leads to better support of student mental health in times of need and ultimately to students becoming advocates for your school. The time is now to show up in a new way for our college students. New technologies are here to help.

Omar Garriott is the Global Head of Education at Qualtrics where he helps institutions around the world across K-12 and Higher Ed revolutionize the academic experience and boost engagement with students and faculty through Experience Management (XM). You can reach him at [email protected].

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