Why your campus should invest in mental and emotional wellness programs

Wellness programming—through positive psychology, mindfulness and self-compassion—is the missing puzzle piece to the college mental health crisis.
By: | December 16, 2020
Getty Images, SerhiiBobykGetty Images, SerhiiBobyk

There is no shortage of alarming statistics highlighting how many young adults ages 18 to 24 are struggling with their mental health, ranging from depression and debilitating stress and anxiety to seriously contemplating suicide. Higher education institutions and organizations alike recognize that there has been a growing mental health crisis on campuses for quite some time (well before the COVID pandemic was introduced). However, the approach taken to address these issues has been reactive at best, oftentimes treating the problem without trying to prevent it from the onset.

Simone Figueroa, U-Thrive Educational Services

Simone Figueroa, U-Thrive Educational Services

This approach mimics traditional psychology and therapy models, which tend to focus on what’s wrong with a person and help them get back to baseline once a problem already exists. We need to proactively help college students learn the tools and skills they need to handle inevitable adversity that they will face in college and in life. I believe that this is the crucial missing piece to the college mental health crisis puzzle, and it begins with proactive mental and emotional wellness programming rooted in the fields of positive psychology, mindfulness and self-compassion. These fields have been shown to positively impact college students and increase their levels of well-being.

Positive psychology is the application of psychological research on human flourishing and optimal functioning to help humans lead an engaged, meaningful, and fulfilling life. College students who report higher levels of optimism and emotional well-being—two aspects of positive psychology—enjoy college more and report higher levels of satisfaction with their college experience.

Mindfulness is purposeful, nonjudgmental attentiveness to the present moment in oneself and in the external world. College students with higher levels of mindfulness experience lower levels of stress in response to academic stressors and use less defensive, more effective coping strategies. Mindfulness training has also been shown to positively affect a student’s transition to college.

Self-compassion is the capacity to forgive, encourage and motivate oneself when struggling with feelings of personal failure or inadequacy. Self-Compassionate students are more likely to respond constructively to academic setbacks, maintain their motivation and sense of competency, and perceive their mistakes as opportunities for potential growth.

It is unrealistic to hope that no student will face a mental health disorder. In fact, 50% of people will experience a mental health disorder in their lifetime, most of which develop during the college-age years. It is also important to note that mental and emotional wellness programs are not a cure for mental health disorders, but they can serve as a buffer against what would be considered normal struggles and can hopefully help curtail the impact of those struggles before they reach the point of distress. It is also naive to think that every college student will be profoundly impacted by mental and emotional wellness programs, but the same can be said for any subject matter taught in college. Some students love humanities whereas others despise the field. This doesn’t mean that humanities isn’t a required area of study for all students as part of their general education curriculum. The same logic should be applied when it comes to the field of “life skills.”

A prerequisite for all incoming students prior to stepping foot on college campuses is to partake in alcohol and drug education programming and sexual misconduct prevention training. Why is there not mandatory training for how to mentally, socially and emotionally succeed as a college student? Why do we take a preventative approach to drugs/alcohol abuse, and sexual assault, but take a reactive approach to mental health and only teach students what to look for once they or their peers are already experiencing a crisis?

If we truly want to fix the mental health crisis plaguing college campuses, we need to invest in teaching college students how to care for themselves and how to be equipped to deal with the trials and tribulations before they occur. We need to not only provide college students with information on what to do if/when they/their friends become distressed, but also focus on helping college students avoid getting to that point of distress in the first place.

Simone Figueroa is the co-Founder and president of U-Thrive Educational Services, an organization that brings mental and emotional wellness programs to college students to help them manage stress, become more resilient, and thrive throughout their undergraduate experience and beyond.

In #highered, student mental health efforts often revolve around treating the problem, not trying to prevent it. We need to proactively help college students learn to handle inevitable adversity in college and in life.Click To Tweet