Taking a Community-Based Approach to Campus Mental Health

Universities are identifying innovative ways to reduce the stigma of getting help for mental health issues.

Taking a Community-Based Approach to Campus Mental Health

The dire statistics surrounding on-campus suicides portray just one piece of the mental health crisis for students. For every student who dies as a result of suicide, 280 others consider it but elect not to go through with an attempt, according to the nonprofit organization Active Minds.

Students are struggling in myriad ways amid the pressures of grades and paying for school. The American College Health Association found that of 68,000 students surveyed last year, 65.6% reported feeling “very lonely” over the previous year and 55.9% felt that “things were hopeless” during that time.

To identify the impacts on high achievers on campus, Active Minds and The National Society of Collegiate Scholars (NSCS) surveyed almost 10,000 U.S. students with high GPAs. One alarming finding from this survey is that 46% of these high achievers believe that “most people think less of a person who has received mental health treatment.”

Mental Health Issues: A Stigma with Staying Power

University administrators, faculty, and academic advisors are recognizing that mental well-being is a key element of student success. In a 2017 survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education, presidents and student affairs leaders reported that their No. 1 concern outside the classroom is student mental health.

If you or someone you know might be at risk of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional information.

However, much remains to be done to reduce the stigma surrounding getting help, increasing awareness about solutions and creating the kind of communities where students can feel like their best selves. The mental health issues that frequently emerge during these pivotal years can have far-reaching effects, like decreasing a student’s chance of graduating.

One essential element of a community-based approach is ensuring that the campus staff members who engage with students the most, such as professors and academic advisors, understand their roles in helping students feel safe speaking up. One recommendation from the Active Minds and NSCS report is to share the VAR approach, which shows staff how simple the conversation can be with a student who says they are struggling:

  • V: Validate their experience (e.g., “That sounds difficult”)
  • A: Appreciate the courage it takes to be open (e.g., “Thank you for sharing this with me”)
  • R: Refer the student to the appropriate support networks

To truly be a resource to students – to be able to listen and be approachable – university staff must have a healthy work-life balance as well. As Active Minds Chief Program Officer Laura Horne says, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

Normalize Well-Being as a Priority

In 2016, a research study by RAND Corp. found that when a campus is seen as being supportive of mental health, students are 20% more likely to pursue treatment. The study’s authors found that the campus climate is one of the “most important factors” in determining whether a student tries to obtain treatment.

Some changes can be simple and straightforward, including asking professors to consider how they interact with students. According to the Active Minds and NSCS survey, the trait students value most in a professor is approachability.

Changes professors can make include:

  • Avoiding late-night deadlines for assignments
  • Reminding students around finals that the campus clinic is an available resource
  • Prioritizing well-being, including a mention of this on class syllabi
  • Minimizing talk of how difficult their classes are and how few students pass. Students already feel enough pressure to earn top grades.
  • Keeping information on hand about on-campus mental health resources to pass along to students who show or express distress during office hours
  • Encouraging participation in on-campus student groups

It’s also key that professors don’t minimize student troubles or make it seem as though a high-stress environment is a normal part of the university experience.

Create a Community That Cares

With many students feeling lonely and disconnected, finding ways to increase student engagement within the university community is one way to create a safe space for students to request help.

This is an area in which Active Minds and NSCS are committed to bringing about positive change. Through its presence on more than 320 college campuses, NSCS – an honor society for high achievers – encourages students to give back to the local community, take on leadership roles and raise awareness for the importance of mental health through a dedicated partnership with Active Minds.

If a university doesn’t already have at least one on-campus organization devoted to mental health awareness – an organization that is thriving and well-resourced – then it may be time to create one.

Universities are finding innovative ways to shift their models for supporting students; examples include:

  • The George Washington University launched peer support groups and an online self-help library.
  • The University of Texas at Austin, through its Counselors in Academic Residence program, places counselors within specific colleges at the university so they may be present for students “in a location that is familiar and convenient for them.”
  • Kent State University added a fall break to its calendar with the goal of making finals feel less stressful.
  • Arizona State University works to ensure students can be seen by counselors the same day. No appointment necessary

Student Input Can Make Efforts More Effective

Always consider the value of students’ perspectives when designing a holistic approach to decrease stigma. There are key generational differences surrounding people’s willingness and ability to discuss mental health, and student input could also make administrative efforts more effective. Involving students in the conversation on how best to serve their peers means obtaining useful feedback on what kinds of initiatives truly make a difference. After all, no one solution will work for every student body.

According to Active Minds, 67% of students who are feeling suicidal talk to a friend about it before telling anyone else. Finding ways to educate and empower all students, not just those struggling with mental health, means reaching those who would never otherwise get help. When examining strategies through the lens of diversity, remember that many students come from cultural backgrounds in which mental health treatment is not thoroughly embraced.

Programs like Active Minds can make a big difference. They’re present at more than 600 college campuses and high schools, and they have creative ideas for how to spark healthy conversations about mental health, further reducing the stigma. Their network is responsible for more than 3,600 annual events that promote mental health awareness. Local chapters get involved on campus in many ways, including:

  • Organizing speaker presentations, panel discussions and stress-relief activities
  • Serving as a voice for on-campus changes that support mental health
  • Partnering with campus government and clinics to improve awareness of resources

By encouraging this kind of involvement, universities create opportunities for students to lead. Beyond launching or growing Active Minds and NSCS chapters, administrators can also look to other organizations on campus to combat stigma. This kind of support doesn’t need to – and shouldn’t – come solely from groups centered on mental health. Fraternities and sororities, student government and community service groups are just a few examples of organizations to ask to join the dialogue.

Remove Barriers to Getting Help

The Active Minds and NSCS survey found that 76% of high achievers know where they can go on campus to get professional help. This shows ample room for improvement in ensuring students recognize their options and feel comfortable taking action.

Make sure to examine mental health resources and communications through the perspective of a student. Many young adults are navigating the confusion of insurance coverage for the first time and may not be accustomed to making their own appointments.

Further, while under the grip of depression, anxiety and other mental health troubles, a small task may feel overwhelming to a student, so opportunities to make the process as easy as possible should be considered:

  • Students should be able to make an appointment in just a few clicks: To appeal to a generation with an overall distaste for making phone calls, make it painless to request an appointment, including online and via text. Check to see how long the waits are for mental health appointments as well. A student with an urgent need for care may be easily (and understandably) discouraged. Work with clinic staff to decrease wait times if necessary.
  • Create a welcoming website:Review your clinic’s website and assess whether the average student in need of help would find it approachable and uncomplicated. It should also be mobile-friendly for those using a smartphone. See whether cutting the canned bios for providers in favor of a friendlier, more human approach could be right for your campus. Particularly if the clinic staff is diverse, feature some group shots, since all students on campus should feel like the clinic is a place for them. An FAQ can go a long way for a student feeling too embarrassed to ask questions.
  • Highlight the clinic on campus tours: If you don’t already, include the clinic on campus tours since it’s just as important as the library, dining hall, and classroom buildings. It may make a student feel more at ease walking in when they need assistance if they’ve already made a visit. It also normalizes the experience of mental health treatment.
  • Consider alternative forms of assistance: Consider whether alternative forms of help, such as text- and video-based therapy options, might be suitable for students feeling the pressures and time constraints of classes, studying and extracurriculars. In the NSCS and Active Minds survey, 17% of high achievers identified a lack of time as a barrier to receiving services for mental or emotional health.

4 Suggestions for University Leaders

Don’t forget to think critically about how to communicate this information to students. Dig into the data on what types of communication students are most responsive to, since email isn’t always best. More universities are turning to texting as an option.

  1. When promoting campus clinics, examine the imagery used (including stock photos) and question whether it is in line with the university’s demographics and therefore a step toward being inclusive
  2. Identify what days and times students are most likely to open messages; many email programs allow send time optimization
  3. Get creative in thinking about when students most need a reminder; notifications about extended library hours during finals could be paired with a message about mental health resources, for example
  4. If students frequently visit the campus clinic, highlight this in student communications, perhaps sharing the percentage of the campus population being served; this may help rewrite the norms about getting treatment and help students feel less alone

Above all, consider how to build the kind of community where a student feels comfortable and safe speaking up and finding someone who will listen. How are you encouraging students to get involved outside of the classroom? Students involved in Active Minds, NSCS, and other like-minded organizations are playing an important role in fighting the stigma around mental health.

Scott Mobley is executive director at the National Society of Collegiate Scholars.

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