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The brain deserves attention. It may only weigh three pounds, but the brain is the most complex object in the universe. And yet, sometimes we feel shame when its complicated functioning seemingly misfires. But the reality is, the brain can get sick like any other part of the body. In fact, an increasing number of students on campuses across the U.S. are experiencing mental health issues — so many that it’s been called an epidemic.
Recent survey data indicates that three out of five students experience overwhelming anxiety and two out of five students are too depressed to function. However, only 10% to 15% seek counseling services. Regarding this gap, Dr. Esther Jhun, director of counseling services at The King’s College in New York City said, “Poor mental health negatively affects academic performance. However, the effects go beyond the classroom as it also impacts how the student relates to others, treats the physical self, and views oneself. Encouraging students to access mental health services positively reinforces that the student’s ability to participate in the full college experience is valued.”
How do colleges create a campus culture that supports mental health?
First, support for emotional well-being must be considered a campus-wide responsibility and prioritized similarly to physical health. Second, senior leadership must acknowledge the importance of student mental health and well-being and nurture a shared value across the campus community. With these two principles in place, members of the campus community are positioned to develop a culture of caring and compassion in which students feel supported.
1. Teach life skills.
Providing life-skills education for incoming students is valuable in teaching healthy ways to cope with the stress of college life. Among important life skills are managing friendships and relationships, problem-solving, decision-making, identifying and managing emotions, healthy living, and finding life purpose and identity.
As an example, Northwestern University developed an app for students called Breathe. Its purpose is to support healthy living and manage stress. The app provides a variety of guided meditations and breathing practices to help deal with stress, decrease perfectionism and self-criticism, and promote confidence and well-being.
2. Promote connectedness.
Loneliness and isolation are risk factors for mental health problems and suicidal ideation. Supportive social relationships and feeling connected to the campus community, family and friends can help lower risk.
As a part of their MindHandHeart initiative to promote student connections, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) hosts Random Acts of Kindness week (RAK). RAK is a weeklong series of events aimed at helping people connect through small acts of kindness. To encourage acts of kindness, MIT libraries provide stationary, postage and paper so students can write kind notes to other students.
3. Train key leaders.
It is crucial to identify students at risk for mental health problems and suicidal behavior, and to promote emotional health awareness among select staff such as residence hall staff, academic advisors, faculty, and student leaders. It is vital for these key people to recognize and refer students in distress.
A program called I CARE is an interactive training forum at the University of Pennsylvania created for students, faculty and staff. It is designed to foster a culture of caring by equipping individuals with the skills needed to intervene with students in distress.
4. Encourage students to get help.
Students who need help may be reluctant or unsure of how to seek it out. Obstacles to seeking help include lack of awareness of mental health services, skepticism about the effectiveness of treatment, prejudices associated with mental illness, and uncertainty about costs or insurance coverage. Consider implementing activities or programs on campus designed to increase the likelihood that a student in need will seek help.
Chan Thai, a professor from the Department of Communication at Santa Clara University, uses class assignments to have students develop stigma-reduction campaigns intended to encourage students to ask for help. The course teaches students how to develop, implement, and evaluate the effectiveness of a campaign.
5. Provide mental health and substance abuse services.
It is essential to offer accessible, consistent and high-quality mental health services to students. Programs should be comprehensive and include strong and flexible services, adequate staffing and staff diversity, flexibility in treatment approaches, and clinic hours that reflect student schedules.
One approach to providing mental health and substance abuse services in a flexible and integrated way is modeled by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). This institution’s wellness center facilitates communication between health and counseling services. The blending of these services enables UNLV to provide comprehensive, holistic care to its student body.
6. Follow crisis management procedures.
Campuses should have a well-publicized, 24/7 crisis phone line either through campus resources or local/national services. Additionally, there should be a process in place to share information between local hospitals and school health and counseling services.
One example is The University of California, Davis, which has implemented services to help students in crisis. The institution uses the Crisis Text Line (CTL) to provide students with immediate mental health support and to increase help-seeking behavior. With the CTL launch, it developed a toolkit and web page that were shared and adopted on campuses across the UC system. This toolkit and web page provide resources for campus community members to spread awareness and information about CTL. In addition, all student ID cards include CTL information so that the resource is readily available for students who may be in crisis.
7. Use telehealth services.
Fifty-two percent of college counseling center directors said their centers used no form of telehealth, according to a report from the Association of University and College Counseling Center Directors. Only 3.4% of the directors surveyed said they offered counseling via videoconferencing and 7.6% offered it via phone. But virtual mental health services, like the telehealth programs offered by TimelyMD, can make a significant impact on college campuses, with benefits including:
- Immediate emotional support for students dealing with stress.
- 24/7 care that expands after-hours support, eliminates wait time and provides support for critical situations.
- Ability to comply with state licensure requirements and reach out-of-state students who are learning remotely.
- Continuity of care with existing campus mental health resources.
“Cost effective, convenient, a great user experience and fully integrates with the care we provide in our campus clinic, TimelyMD not only enables us to provide better care for our students, it also improves public health for our residential community.” Kevin Campbell, Senior VP of Operations, Abilene Christian University.
The American Council on Education (ACE) reports 53% of college presidents say student mental health is their most pressing issue. How college leaders create a caring campus culture will play a critical role in campus success from retention to recruitment. So, creating a caring campus culture is attractive to prospective students and can nurture deeper learning.
If you’re interested in learning how telehealth can support your campus, contact TimelyMD to learn how 24/7/365 access to mental health can make a difference in the lives of your students.