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Keeping students healthy, well, and engaged through their academic journey to graduation is one of the primary challenges for higher education. This was true prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and college and university leaders today must navigate a continued mental health crisis and determine how best to support student mental health on and off-campus. TimelyMD’s Gen Ztressed series recently featured a panel discussion on the topic of student engagement during the mental health crisis hosted by the Boston Globe’s Laura Krantz. Panelists included Dr. Beth Rushing, president of the Appalachian College Association; Robin Darcangelo, senior dean of student affairs at Napa Valley College; and Alex Henoch, a University of Wisconsin student.
Students who started their college careers in 2020 did not get to experience a normal academic year or the regular campus life that they expected. Some schools extended their spring break by a week in 2020 only to permanently send students home to a new learning environment for the semester (and several semesters to come). Now, there is a new normal for students and higher education leaders—one where digital support services are essential, expected by students, and can impact campus enrollment.
The question for higher education leaders is this: What strategies can ensure that your campus is helping students to support their health and well-being as the mental health crisis continues?
How is the mental health crisis impacting students?
Though there is less of a stigma related to mental health concerns and mental illness as access to resources has increased, there is still work to be done in higher education to address student mental health challenges. In fact, according to a nationwide survey of college students conducted by the Healthy Minds Network and the American College Health Association, the pandemic intensified a decade-long trend of increased rates of depression, anxiety, substance misuse, and serious thoughts of suicide. At the same time, on-campus counseling centers around the U.S. are overwhelmed with the demand for services, while the bandwidth and number of campus mental health providers shrinks and burnout becomes more common for support staff.
Strategies to support student mental health
During the Gen Ztressed panel discussion, Henoch said one issue is that many college students feel that their mental health issues are too minor to speak with someone about. This can happen particularly when a student decides to compare their situation to what someone else is going through. He noted that this is an unhealthy mindset to have. To help remove this stigma, Henoch discussed the importance of increasing access to mental health services so students feel like they can seek support no matter how insignificant something may seem.
Support students' mental health at all hours
Mental health support is not one-size-fits-all. Each person’s situation and experience is unique and personal to them. In the same way, it’s important to think about how colleges and universities can be proactive instead of reactive when it comes to student mental health care. Adding mental health initiatives or changing policies to support student health and well-being should be something that is regularly considered, rather than a reactive measure.
What steps can higher education leaders take now to support student mental health? Consider these student engagement strategies shared by the higher education experts on the Gen Ztressed panel, Darcangelo at Napa Valley College, and Dr. Rushing from the Appalachian College Association.
As a member of campus, it can be hard to truly understand what’s happening behind the scenes. At Napa Valley College, Darcangelo uses focus groups around campus to best understand how students are feeling and what their needs are. For example, perhaps your campus is already offering something that students are looking for—like virtual health—but students may be unaware of what resources are available. This is a great way to understand what’s happening on campus.
Diversity among faculty and staff
Both Darcangelo and Dr. Rushing agree that there must be diversity among both faculty and staff that reflects the student population. Dr. Rushing mentioned that first-generation students’ needs are often different from other students. In some situations, they may not have the support from family members to rely on as they make the transition from high school to college. Dr. Rushing mentioned that students will respond differently based on their culture and background, and it’s imperative to have someone that understands those experiences. Krantz added that “programming needs to be more specific to be able to make targeted attempts” to address students’ needs.
Flexible mental health resources
Every student is unique, and so is the way that they will address their own mental health. On-campus resources are helpful for many students, but not every student wants to go in-person to a counseling center. Or the hours of campus health care resources may not work with a student’s schedule to speak in person with a school counselor.
Offering a virtual health care option to students will help remove these barriers to care. A 24/7 virtual health care option helps ensure that students have the resources they need at all hours of the day. Similarly, peer-to-peer help, as well as group options, can also help students find the support they need. Mental health isn’t one-size-fits-all. The ability to offer students flexible options will help them navigate what’s best for their mental health journey.
Understand common stressors
College is normally a stressful time for students. But if common academic stressors can be minimized, it can help students to thrive both in and out of the classroom. Having a conversation with a student can help identify what they are stressed about. And potentially, that stressor can be reduced or eliminated.
Strategies to keep students engaged
Many students, according to Henoch, might not know what faculty and staff are doing “behind the scenes” when it comes to student support, caring for mental health needs, and efforts to create a healthy campus culture that supports connectedness. Darcangelo noted that it’s common to assume students know what resources they have access to because the website has the information. The panelists offered these suggestions to keep students engaged and aware of what’s happening on campus:
- Communicate beyond the website by posting flyers around campus, sending emails, sharing on social media, and having faculty members talk about what’s happening in the classroom. This will help make sure consistent messaging about mental health resources and student services is clear.
- Be collaborative with students by listening, allowing them to give feedback, and working to implement that feedback.
- Work to build a school-wide campus culture that encourages students to prioritize their mental health and seek care.
- Check in and be there to listen and support students and the campus community.
- Allow mental health days and build trust with students by letting them use these days when needed.
Keeping both students and faculty engaged after the stress the pandemic caused since 2020 might seem impossible. However, working to create a campus culture where students feel comfortable enough to talk about mental health and seek the help they need is a step in the right direction. The mental health crisis is prevalent across all segments of higher education. From state universities and private institutions to HBCUs and community colleges, the time is now to prioritize your campus’ strategy for student engagement, health, and well-being.
To learn more about student engagement strategies for your campus, watch the Gen Ztressed panel discussion that explores ways to improve student retention and engagement by better supporting student well-being. And contact TimelyMD to discover how a 24/7 virtual health and well-being platform for your campus can be a key part of your student engagement strategy that promotes self-care and supports student success.