Study: Students, Staff Underprepared to Respond to Mental Illness in College Students

College students, faculty and staff members acknowledged they play a role in supporting students with mental health, but are schools empowering them enough?

Study: Students, Staff Underprepared to Respond to Mental Illness in College Students

A recent survey shows more than 60 percent of students, faculty and staff members don’t feel adequately prepared to approach college students who may be at risk of mental illness

The large-scale survey also found more than half of college students, faculty and staff members don’t feel adequately prepared to recognize when a student is exhibiting signs of psychological distress such as depression, anxiety or thoughts of suicide.

The results shed light on why previous studies have shown only 40 percent of students with mental illness seek professional help.

The new survey was conducted by Kognito, a company that develops role-play simulations designed to prepare people to lead conversations that improve social, emotional and physical health. More than 50,000 undergraduate students and more than 14,000 faculty and staff members from colleges around the country participated in the survey.

View all of the survey’s results in our slideshow!

“There’s good news and bad news in this study, but it’s really telling what’s going on with students and faculty,” Kognito CEO Ron Goldman said in an exclusive interview with Campus Safety. “These are the people we should be leveraging to increase safety, and they want to help, so we have to empower them.”

Playing a Role in College Mental Illness Response

Among the survey’s good news is that 95 percent of faculty and staff members and 87 percent of students said they believe it is part of their role on campus to connect students experiencing psychological distress with mental health support services.

Despite those high figures, more than half of faculty, staff and students said they did not recognize a single student exhibiting signs of psychological distress in the months prior to the survey.

“We have a community of people who know this is something they want to do, but at the same time they don’t have the skills or confidence to have these conversations,” Goldman said. “These are difficult conversations to have, but they can be very effective.”

At least 60 percent of faculty, staff and students respondents also said they did not approach or refer a single student to mental health services because of suspected psychological distress.

Goldman says part of the problem is that members of the campus community may be intimidated by the idea of talking about mental health issues because they don’t understand what such conversations may entail.

“We’re not asking you to save this person, we’re just asking you to go to them, communicate your concern and talk to them about the help and support structures that are available,” Goldman says. “Those conversations sound scary, but they’re not as difficult as it seems.”

The Problem of Mental Health in College Students

Mental health is a deceptively prevalent issue on college campuses. One study found that at any given time, 32 percent of students are dealing with a mental illness (including five percent with panic disorders, six percent for anxiety disorders, nine percent for major depression and 15 percent for self-injuring without thoughts of suicide).

Sadly, only approximately 40 percent of students struggling with mental illness seek professional help.

The 2007 study Framework for Campus Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention found that 67 percent of college students tell a friend they are feeling suicidal before telling anyone else. That’s why an increased emphasis has been given to mental health awareness campaigns and training initiatives for students, faculty and staff.

The JED Foundation’s Campus Program emphasizes the importance of programs and policies that demonstrate colleges take mental illness, mental health concerns and substance abuse seriously.

The program lists strategic planning of mental health programs as the first step for colleges to improve mental health support, adding that it “allows schools to anticipate and evaluate clinical and programming needs, examine how they deploy both personnel and financial resources to address challenges, coordinate efforts across campus, and evaluate programming effectiveness. Campus policies are necessary in order to establish norms, build awareness, improve the quality of health services, protect students and discourage harmful behaviors across campus. Having comprehensive and clear policies around health, mental health and substance misuse are important ingredients in prevention.”

Now check out the full list of survey results!

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About the Author


Zach Winn is a journalist living in the Boston area. He was previously a reporter for Wicked Local and graduated from Keene State College in 2014, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism and minoring in political science.

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