Mental health has escalated from issue to crisis over the last few years — and that’s especially true for college students. Competitive campus culture and academic pressure have always put students at risk for overworking and burnout, but the current levels of stress they face demand intentional engagement from higher education institutions.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) published a study on Prevention and Treatment of Anxiety, Depression, and Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors Among College Students in 2021 addressing how higher education can provide meaningful support to their student population. They said:
“The increase in prevalence of mental health concerns on college campuses over the last few years is viewed as a serious mental health crisis requiring immediate action. Additionally, the number of students enrolling in college with pre-existing mental health conditions is rising. Finally, college students are at the prime age for the onset of many symptoms of mental illnesses.”
With a lot of factors weighing on them, students need their colleges and universities to provide high-touch strategies and solutions for managing stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges. Campuses also have the opportunity to teach prevention strategies and proactive ways to build resilience and relationships.
Proactively Teaching Balance and Self-Care
Young adults have a lot of stamina when it comes to dealing with adversity. For many students, after a long career of schooling, higher education is one of the most demanding situations they have found themselves in. That means that they are learning to navigate the accompanying stress and anxiety that comes with an unknown challenge, academic pressure, and a new environment.
Institutions of higher education have the responsibility to openly discuss those challenges with their students. Students are better equipped to increase their resilience when they know that others around them are also being challenged. They need the community support of peers, faculty, and administrators that openly acknowledge that what they are doing is hard, that struggle is normal, and that it’s ok to take breaks.
Just how many students are likely to experience mental health issues? One survey from the Healthy Mindset Network found that 39% of students reported symptoms aligning with depression, and 34% of the same group reported systems aligning with anxiety. Additionally, this group reported feeling left out or isolated sometimes (~41%) or often (~23%), which frequently increases depression and anxiety.
Balance and self-care can help students manage the mental obstacles they’re currently experiencing while helping them build resilience for future challenges. What does balance look like for college students, and how can professors and faculty help them develop the right behaviors?
Provide transparency. Teachers can help students by setting clear expectations and providing accessible help. Policies like 6:00 p.m. due dates for online assignments (as opposed to midnight or early in the morning) can also help students naturally get more sleep and take care of their physical and mental health.
Build meaningful relationships. Common study spaces, tutoring centers, and approachable teaching assistants can help students build their academic confidence while also forming relationships that will help them cope with the pressures of college life.
Make discussing mental health normal. Professors, teaching assistants, and housing advisors can all contribute to a positive campus climate by openly endorsing mental health resources and making sure that students know that it’s normal to need help. They can also provide ways for students to manage their workload (such as these five tips to avoid burnout) and remind students to take breaks.
When students learn to practice self-care and schedule their activities so that they can handle the pressure they’re more likely to be successful academically, as well as in their future careers.
Building Trust Through Communication and Resources
When colleges and universities have the resources available for students to manage their mental health and find balance, their next step is to communicate the availability of those services in a way that encourages participation and normalizes mental health. Students experiencing mental health challenges are in a vulnerable position; it will take significant trust for them to share their struggles and include campus resources in their life.
We know that trust isn’t something that just shows up — it’s a quality that has to be built and cultivated. Trust is also a major contributing factor in mental illness. One European study on mental health services identified that trust issues can lead to:
- Lack of knowledge about the features and treatability of mental illnesses
- Ignorance about how to access assessment and treatment
- Prejudice against people who have a mental illness
- Expectations of discrimination against people who have a diagnosis of mental illness
Students need to trust that their colleges and universities are going to provide them with the right tools in a safe environment in order to be positively impacted by higher education.
Faculty demonstrating trust and healthy working cultures will naturally build trust with students that will help them engage with mental health programs. They will also demonstrate what a healthy and collaborative environment looks like, better-preparing students to be emotionally intelligent leaders in their careers.
Helping Students Build Resilience
While all of the things we’ve addressed here are critical to meeting the challenges of the mental health crises, there is one relationship that is the most impactful for every student:
Their relationship with themself.
Scott Miller, a Senior Advisor in Thought Leadership at Franklin Covey, wrote about this very topic. Some of the introspective questions he poses are:
- What do you like most about yourself?
- How would the person who likes you the most in life describe you? Only the good stuff now.
- What’s a negative, self-defeating habit or area of your life where you’ve previously had some shame that you’re most proud of improving?
- What’s something about yourself that you’ve been highly critical of that you realize isn’t really that big of a deal after all and need to altogether forget about and move on?
- What’s something you’ve accomplished that you never gave yourself enough credit for? What else? Keep going — tell yourself how proud you are of all your accomplishments and take a few minutes, hours, days, or years to wallow in it.
- Think about and say out loud to yourself a talent, insight, or strength you have that you don’t see in many others.
- What are you doing to care for yourself?
Self-reflection is a key part of building personal confidence and resilience. Higher education can help students build this skill by incorporating self-assessments, retrospectives, and other activities into their courses. Resilience enables students to be more creative, innovative and set challenging goals for themselves. Ultimately, these types of behaviors are what will help them thrive both personally and professionally.
What Colleges and Universities Can Do for Mental Health
Protecting Youth Mental Health from the U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory in 2021 recognizes the mental health crisis that teens and young adults are facing. The report illustrates that mental health is a topic we should be addressing across every aspect of life, outlining actions individuals, families, caregivers, educators, healthcare providers, media organizations, and employers can take to help promote positive mental health.
The U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, M.D., M.B.A., shares in that report:
“Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real, and they are widespread. But most importantly, they are treatable, and often preventable…Ensuring healthy children and families will take an all-of-society effort, including policy, institutional, and individual changes in how we view and prioritize mental health…If we seize this moment, step up for our children and their families in their moment of need, and lead with inclusion, kindness, and respect, we can lay the foundation for a healthier, more resilient, and more fulfilled nation.”
Higher education takes place at a critical point for young adults working to manage their mental health. That can feel overwhelming, but it is also an opportunity for impact and positive change. The Hunt Institute recommends a few ways colleges and universities can build mental health into their policies that align well with the ideas we’ve discussed here:
- Prioritize mental health.
- Use technology to support students across learning environments.
- Develop a positive comprehensive communication plan that addresses mental health.
- Partner with other colleges, universities, public, or private groups.
FranklinCovey is built upon concepts like trust, innovation, and self-reflection that build resilient students and future leaders. LeaderU courses can help colleges and universities provide actionable content that helps students build the confidence and resilience they need to be mentally strong and successful academically. Contact us to learn more.