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If you’re a student development professional, you know firsthand that today’s students are the most racially diverse group in the nation’s history. Tweeting and texting are an everyday part of their social lives; they are the least religiously observant; they are socially conscious; and they are fiercely individualistic.
The Fourth Turning, an insightful book by Strauss and Howe that examines the cyclical nature of history, confirms the experience of many student development professionals working with this generation of college students. The authors highlight the fact that these students grew up believing “that they are, collectively, vital to the nation and to their parents’ sense of purpose.” In the book iGen, Dr. Jean Twenge’s research does the same when she writes that this generation is made up of “super-connected kids growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy — and completely unprepared for adulthood.”
No matter how you characterize them, the next generation of students has arrived on campus and is changing the campus community in substantive ways. With their arrival, higher education has an opportunity to improve how we help students deal with fear and anxiety during COVID-19, as well as how we address their physical and mental health.
By reading, watching and listening to others in our industry, our collective response to this generation’s physical and mental health needs becomes increasingly clear. While each college will appeal to students in different ways, we can all integrate these principles into our plans to support student health and wellness.
Normalize the Mental Health Conversation
Colleges provide orientation sessions on drug and alcohol use, sexual violence prevention and other student health and lifestyle topics, so why not address mental health directly during new student orientation? Consider sharing mental health information with students during face-to-face orientation sessions to address the importance of mental well-being. Initiating this important conversation on day-one helps to create a compassionate culture that addresses and helps remove the stigma associated with mental illness.
Offer Health Screenings
Another way to counter the stigma around mental health is to encourage students to monitor their mental health the same way they monitor their physical health. To that end, some universities are normalizing mental health checkups by offering free, readily accessible screenings for students. Drexel University’s Recreation Center, for example, has a mental health kiosk where students can “get a checkup from the neck up.” UCLA offers a more formalized screening option — part of an interdisciplinary research project to solve major global health problems. This four-year study called the UCLA Grand Challenge features a 15-minute online assessment during which participants learn if they might have mild to severe anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts, and then can opt-in to mental health treatment in an interactive online program called This Way Up.
Introduce Campus-Wide Initiatives
Colleges are addressing the perceived decline in student resilience in a variety of ways. Florida State University (FSU), for instance, launched an online trauma resilience training tool developed through the Institute of Family Violence Studies and its College of Social Work. The university requires all incoming students to participate in the training that nurtures student strengths and provides coping strategies. Other examples take a more preventive approach to mental health by promoting student resilience throughout the school year, such as Stanford’s Early Life Stress and Resilience Program that features personal storytelling as well as academic skills coaching.
Talk About It
Despite all the resources, students aren’t necessarily verbalizing their own mental health struggles, and many don’t know how to help peers who are lonely, sad or distant. How do they learn to have appropriate conversations? Consider these opportunities:
- Over 350 colleges utilize an online simulation program called Kognito that helps students learn how to talk to friends about mental health. Upon entering Kognito’s virtual campus, students learn about mental health from virtual peers and put that education to use when they talk with virtual students in distress within the simulation.
- With more than 450 campus chapters, Active Minds is a national organization dedicated to mental health advocacy. In a study by Active Minds, researchers surveyed 1,129 students at 12 universities in California three different times during the school year to assess their involvement with Active Minds and their resulting attitudes and knowledge about mental health. They found that students’ familiarity with Active Minds was linked to a decrease in stigma about mental health issues over time, while involvement with the program was associated with an increase in helping behaviors. The study was published online by the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
- The Jed Foundation (JED), in partnership with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Ad Council, created Seize the Awkward. It helps students start conversations about mental health and offers guides, mental health tips and critical situation resources.
Help students assess their strengths and resilience. By empowering students with increased self-knowledge, they can more adeptly identify problems early and access the appropriate resources. Encourage students to monitor their progress by creating an online portal where they can access tools to promote skill development in the areas of mindfulness, time management and career reflection. Using web-based interventions for students’ self-efficacy has been found to be effective. As an example, FSU has an online portal called the Student Resilience Project that is worth exploring for student development professionals.
Provide Stress Management Resources
Create processes and provide tools for students to improve their ability to manage stress. It’s equally important that students are able to locate these support services where clear communication and helpful tools play a role. Resources may be coaches, advisers and counselors, or peer-to-peer education and skill-building groups. Virtual care and telemental services, like TimelyMD, are also critical for this digitally-savvy student population who want to access on-demand emotional support. The You at College platform is another unique resource for student mental health. After its fall 2015 launch at CSU, 81% of surveyed first-year students said they felt that they were better able to manage their stress.
The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published an article full of creative ideas to help students deal with fear and anxiety during COVID — ideas you can use with your student body. And for even more creative ideas, explore Great Value Colleges to learn how 30 other U.S. colleges are redefining how students improve their physical and mental health. If you’re not already offering telehealth services on your campus, contact TimelyMD to learn how telehealth can support the physical and mental health needs of your students.