New Data Reveals Need for Mental Well-Being Resources on College Campuses

While 42% of college students needed help for emotional or mental health problems in the last year, over 60% noted they’ve never received counseling or therapy.

New Data Reveals Need for Mental Well-Being Resources on College Campuses

Photo: Yurii Kibalnik, Adobe Stock

Our young people are experiencing an unprecedented mental health crisis, and students are now identifying it as a leading concern on campus. Higher education institutions are in a prime position to support these students by helping them learn how to build resilience and self-care and support skills.

A recent survey of 91,662 students across 85 colleges and universities found that students urgently need mental health support: 42% of all responding students reported they needed help for emotional or mental health problems in the last 12 months, and nearly a quarter (24%) indicated a current need for assistance. But despite this proven need for mental health resources, over 60% of students noted they’ve never received counseling or therapy.

In this article, we’ll explore the insights gleaned from this report, the barriers — both actual and perceived — to receiving support, and detail how higher education institutions can improve mental well-being on their campuses.

Students turn to peers and family over professionals

When they feel sad, anxious, or even serious emotional distress, only a third (36%) of students said they seek out a professional clinician for support. The majority of students prefer the help of a family member (63%) or friend (59%) when dealing with these issues — and a concerning one in 10 students noted they keep their struggles to themselves.

Those who don’t seek out professional help are relatively split on their reasons for not doing so. While 38% said they prefer to take mental health into their own hands and/or lean on a family member or friend, others face a number of barriers to receiving the mental health care they need. Thirty percent of students complained they don’t have enough time to search for a mental health professional, and a quarter admitted they’re unsure where to go for these resources. Another 22% cited finances as a barrier to care.

The role of peer support

Efforts to boost mental health awareness have been on a steady upward trajectory in recent years, and they’re having a positive impact on students’ shared sense of responsibility when it comes to supporting their peers. Over two-thirds of students claimed that they look out for each other at their respective schools, and 65% feel responsible to help when a classmate is struggling. What’s more, an overwhelming 89% affirmed that if they saw someone experiencing emotional distress or thoughts of suicide, they would intervene.

When it comes to providing interpersonal support, students are confident in their ability to help one another through difficult times. Eighty percent believe they’re able to make a difference in the mental health of others, and around 75% of students say they’re able to recognize when someone is in emotional or mental distress.

Successful peer intervention often takes the form of proactive bystander behaviors. Students felt they had the most impact when they directly expressed concern for a peer’s well-being, listened to them talk about their issues or distress, and/or checked in with the individual in question at a later time. Two-thirds of students either agreed or strongly agreed that intervening in this way enabled them to improve the situation.

The responsibility students feel regarding mental well-being isn’t limited to relationships with their peers; many feel they also have a hand in promoting mental health on their campuses at large. Forty-four percent of students believe they can play a role in supporting mental health at their school, and nearly a quarter are planning to get more involved in efforts to uplift and protect mental well-being. Institutions should thereby empower and enable peer support wherever possible.

When — and why — students don’t intervene

Despite the demonstrated interest in protecting the mental health of their peers and the 91% consensus that mental health is as important as physical health, only a handful of students (5%) said they’re currently involved in supporting mental health at their school. This suggests that awareness-based messaging alone is not sufficient to encourage students to act on their impulse to help their peers.

Without receiving training or programming that builds skills, corrects misconceptions, and establishes confidence, students say they don’t know what to do in mental health situations (55%) or don’t feel confident enough to intervene (29%). Some respondents (37%) refrained from getting involved because they felt it was none of their business. Others were concerned with how their intervention would be perceived by others, citing worries that they would embarrass themselves, get in trouble, or face a lack of support from their friends in turn.

Perceptions of social norms and expectations significantly shape individual behavior. Students are more likely to seek help for themselves and others when they believe those actions will be supported by their community. Feeling unsupported by peers can be an obstacle to addressing concerning peer behavior, seeking help, or engaging in other types of positive actions.

The report revealed a discrepancy between actual social norms and those students perceived to be true about their peers. Students may uphold certain values themselves, but they are often unconvinced their peers do the same. For instance, while 90% of students believe it’s healthy to discuss mental health concerns, only 79% think their peers feel this way. Furthermore, 87% stated they would not think less of a person who received mental health treatment, but only 76% said the same of their peers.

Students, therefore, need support on campus to bolster their confidence in not only their own abilities but also that of their broader communities.

What institutions can do

With 44% of respondents noting they’d like to learn more about improving their mental health, higher education institutions have an obligation to provide their students with the resources they need to do so. Colleges and universities should adopt a public health approach to empowering mental well-being on campus; students need access to various levels of mental health support, including but not limited to trained peer support networks, well-being coaching and mentoring, and professional clinicians.

Young people also need guidance building the necessary skills to protect their own health and that of their classmates. Initiatives that reinforce positive perceptions and attitudes about mental well-being, including efforts to reduce stigma for help-seeking, are a solid first step. Beyond that, institutions should ensure their efforts provide clarity on when a mental health-related problem necessitates professional help and where students can access said help.

Higher ed institutions should also consider the following strategies:

  1. Provide information and resources for parents and other caregiving adults. With so many students turning to family members for support, colleges and universities should offer ample information and resources for parents and other caregivers to assist them in playing this role.
  2. Disseminate information on preferred bystander behaviors. As mentioned previously, this study revealed the behaviors students find the most valuable when offering support to their peers. Institutions should capitalize on this and leverage their students’ strengths for positive change. By educating students on the most effective methods of mental well-being intervention, colleges can ensure their students are prepared to show up for their classmates.
  3. Ensure vulnerable students have access to culturally knowledgeable supportive services. Students in the LGBTQIA+ community reported emotional concerns at significantly higher rates than others: 64% of queer students noted they needed help for emotional or mental health issues in the past 12 months compared to 42% of the general student population who said the same. Higher ed institutions must prioritize creating an inclusive and welcoming campus climate for students in marginalized communities.

The case for prevention services

An ongoing commitment to promoting mental well-being on campus can positively influence public perception of an institution. Seventy percent of students noted they feel mental and emotional well-being is a priority at their school, and 57% said they have trusted adults at school they can talk to if they’re experiencing challenges.

Investing in resources that facilitate mental health efforts can thus prove a competitive advantage for colleges and universities and demonstrate to students, parents, and alumni that the institution takes these matters seriously.

Prevention services, for example, offer schools a comprehensive course catalog that features high-impact content to validate, resource, and support the experiences of those facing mental health challenges. The right prevention service will also provide a powerful training platform to enable skillset building, as well as unparalleled data to inform decision-making on issues pertaining to mental well-being.

Promoting and protecting mental health on campus is as simple as providing students with the resources they need to help themselves and each other. By familiarizing themselves with the state of mental well-being among college students, circulating information on how to appropriately address mental health challenges, and making strategic investments in prevention and training services, institutions can ensure they are creating safe and supportive campus environments.

Holly Rider-Milkovich serves as Vice President of Education Strategy at Vector Solutions. Prior to joining Vector Solutions, Holly oversaw the University of Michigan’s prevention and advocacy efforts for nearly a decade.

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