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A Forbes Health survey conducted in November 2022 found that half of the respondents between the ages of 18 and 25 cited improved mental health as their top New Year’s resolution for 2023. That’s compared to just 33% who said an improved diet was their top goal. How can colleges and universities support students in keeping their resolution to improve their mental health?
Why Gen Z is focusing on their mental health
Gen Z is the largest generation in American history, making up nearly 30% of the U. S. population. Born between 1997 and 2012, they’re now 11 to 26 years old. And according to The Pavlovic Today, over 9 out of 10 Gen Z report experiencing psychological symptoms due to stress, which is why “Gen Z is considered to be the most depressed generation.” A study by Western Governors University found that only 45% of Gen Z believe their mental well-being is good, compared to 56% of millennials. The question is — Why?
According to a 2022 survey by Deloitte, Gen Z is concerned and worried about the state of the world, including:
- The cost of living
- Climate change
- Wealth inequality
- Geopolitical conflicts
- The ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic
While they are determined to drive positive societal change, they struggle with daily life challenges such as financial anxiety, work-life balance, and high levels of stress. The survey also revealed that nearly half of Gen Z (46%) and about 4 in 10 millennials (38%) are stressed all or most of the time.
All of these factors suggest that, as 2022 comes to an end and 2023 begins, colleges and universities need to help students go beyond simply making New Year’s resolutions—they need to provide practical support for their health and well-being.
How higher education can help students prioritize mental health
Developing sustainable well-being strategies takes time, effort, and collaboration among staff, faculty, and students. It demands a long-term commitment to supporting mental health even after the end of a stressful semester or academic year. While more long-term wellness projects may discourage some institutions from pursuing them, here are five strategies that can be used with students right now, based on recommendations in Forbes Health by Sabrina Romanoff, Psy.D., a Harvard-trained clinical psychologist, professor, and researcher.
1. Differentiate between short- and long-term goals
Romanoff said that one of the reasons New Year’s resolutions often fail is that goals are aspirational rather than realistic. It’s important to create a plan that connects the long-term goal with a realistic and achievable goal—that’s how to find success. For example, if a student wants to increase their overall sense of well-being, encourage them to set aside time a few days a week to reflect, meditate, or check in on themselves, which may lead them to eventually incorporate it into their daily routine.
2. Make compatible goals
If one goal is competing with or causing a detriment to another goal, it’s time for a student to take a step back and evaluate what they’re trying to accomplish. Students should “try to assert ways to find a balance between goals so they don’t feel incompatible,” said Romanoff.
3. Anticipate obstacles when setting goals
Students face all kinds of barriers when it comes to health and well-being. From stigma and lack of time to cost and insurance, it’s important that students go into setting wellness goals with a clear understanding of what may get in the way. Understanding these obstacles can also bolster a student’s resilience if they face setbacks. “For example, the goal of eating healthy or getting more sleep might require more planning, scheduling, and prep-work ahead of time,” states Romanoff.
4. Be flexible
Life happens, and change is inevitable. That’s why it’s important for a student to be able to adjust goals to accommodate what might be happening in their lives, while still heading toward their desired endpoint. For this reason, Romanoff emphasizes that it’s important to be adaptive.
5. Transform goals into values
“Values are never actually achieved, rather they operate as a compass, constantly informing and guiding our behaviors,” said Romanoff. Students should consider the motivation to improve their mental health and channel those values as an incentive for the goal. It’s the “why” behind the goal of improved mental health that will provide purpose and meaning.
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Campus-wide ways to encourage student mental health
While these strategies above are focused on engaging one-on-one with students, there are more comprehensive initiatives that colleges and universities can adopt to improve mental health on a broader scale.
Consider these ways to support students in their goal of improving mental health.
Establish a mental health peer-to-peer program
Mental health peer-to-peer programs are designed to mobilize students to become agents of change for mental health and well-being on their college campuses. A peer-to-peer model is an effective approach to shifting social norms that encourage positive health behaviors. Research shows that peers strongly influence the decisions and health behaviors of other students. Students who are influenced positively by their peers will engage in new activities and make healthier choices. Conversely, students can also be influenced by their peers to make unhealthy choices.
College students are also more likely to seek help from their friends. That’s why implementing a peer-to-peer program in the college setting is considered an effective practice by The JED Foundation (JED). Not only can peer-to-peer programs expand the network of individuals who can intervene before a mental health crisis occurs, but it also creates an environment where students are modeling positive health behaviors that influence other students to practice self-care and seek help for themselves or a friend before a critical situation occurs. It also helps students who may not be familiar with mental health support to eventually seek help from a professional when needed.
Educate and train faculty and staff
A survey conducted by Mary Christie Institute and Boston University School of Public Health revealed that faculty members with 4 to 6 years of experience are most comfortable discussing mental health issues with students. Faculty members with 10 to 15 years of experience are the least comfortable. The survey also revealed that 42% of professors with one year of experience agree that they’re aware of the mental health services at their institutions, compared with 80% of faculty with 15 or more years of experience. Simply put, faculty members need more awareness of campus mental health resources and more training in how to respond to students experiencing mental health concerns or emotional distress.
This survey confirms that faculty mental health training is needed. Gatekeeper Training is defined as “programs designed to enhance an individual’s skills to recognize signs of emotional distress in other people and refer them to appropriate resources.” One such program called Question, Persuade, and Refer (QPR) Gatekeeper Training for Suicide Prevention, is an educational program designed to teach gatekeepers the warning signs of a suicide crisis and how to respond. Faculty who complete QPR Gatekeeper Training for Suicide Prevention improve their ability to identify when a student’s behavior or appearance is a sign of psychological distress, discuss the concern with a student, motivate a student to seek help, and discuss a referral to student health services and mental health support services.
The lack of diversity and cultural awareness is also a barrier to providing adequate mental health support to students. While the process of hiring and onboarding a more diverse faculty and staff will take time and dedication, institutions can prioritize training their current staff to be more mindful of the issues and concerns that pertain to the mental health needs of minority students. This includes hosting seminars and training on topics such as racism, LGBTQIA+, cultural and religious practices, attitudes and behaviors, social determinants of health, and other topics that promote cultural competency.
Promote well-being practices with incoming students
Most colleges and universities 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 orientations? Educating about services and resources on campus during orientation, providing information on resources during first-year seminars, and collaborating with student organizations to raise awareness of campus resources are all great ways to promote mental health awareness among students. These programs can educate incoming students on signs, symptoms, risk factors, and preventive and responsive behaviors they can adopt to mitigate them. Approaches could include panel discussions, student testimonials, and role-playing activities.
Additionally, students may be offered free mental health screenings to gain a better understanding of their mental health and the warning signs for stress, depression, anxiety, and other disorders. To that end, some institutions are normalizing mental health checkups by offering free, readily accessible screenings. For example, Drexel University’s Recreation Center 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 can then opt-in to mental health treatment in an interactive online program called This Way Up.
Offer additional on-ramps to support through virtual care
Among millennials, Gen X, baby boomers, and the silent generation, Gen Z is most likely to choose virtual care over in-person experiences—41% compared to 33% of millennials, 22% of Gen X, 9% of baby boomers, and 7% of the silent generation.
Investing in telehealth and virtual care services is a great way for colleges and universities to complement campus health resources; provide additional support to students outside of office hours; promote connectedness, understanding, and empathy among students; and encourage them to practice self-care and self-help behaviors, including mindful breathing exercises, relaxation and meditation, and socialization. Care delivered through telehealth is fast, easy, and efficient. It eliminates wait times, reduces the stigma of seeking mental and medical care, and can be available the moment a student needs care. When students have in-the-moment access to care, instead of waiting days or weeks for an appointment, more students can get the care they need.
Contact TimelyMD to learn how we can help you support your students’ top New Year’s resolution to improve their mental health.