This Fall, as institutions of higher education returned for the academic year, things looked quite a bit different than years past. In addition to concerns about physical health, mental health concerns of college students are staggering. A study of college students conducted by Active Minds at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic found that 20% report that their mental health has significantly worsened. Additionally, more than half of students (55%) reported not knowing how or where to seek professional treatment.
Nearly half report that they have experienced a financial setback due to COVID-19, and 80% report that they are experiencing loneliness or isolation. These four data points alone highlight a potential perfect storm of mental health catastrophe: isolation, financial stress, challenges to mental health, and being unsure of where to even access care. And, recently released data from the CDC affirms this, with nearly 25% of individuals aged 18-24 reporting that they have seriously considered suicide.
As colleges and universities mobilize to address the physical health of students, careful attention must also be paid to their mental health—and, with physical distancing measures adding a layer of complexity to the often-used channels for raising mental health awareness for college students, creativity, and adaptability are more important than ever.
It is likely that, just as your student body is diverse, so too are their mental health needs. There may be some students within your community who arrive on campus with existing mental health diagnoses and a need for continuity of care, and others who have never even contemplated the fact that mental health is an important part of physical health. In considering resource allocation, in addition to the appropriate counseling resources, it is also important to provide opportunities for students across the spectrum to have access to preventative information—how to support themselves during trying times, what kinds of mental health resources are available, how they can leverage their own strengths to confront the challenges that they may face.
It is widely known that those college students who are part of “Gen-Z” endorse less stigma than their millennial predecessors, and early insights from EVERFI’s Mental Well-being for Students course affirm this truth. Even before taking the course, fewer than 10% of students agreed with the statement “I would think less of a person who has received mental health treatment”. While gaps between self-reported stigma and perceptions of stigma exist (14% of students agreed or strongly agreed that peers would think less of someone who received mental health treatment), the vast majority of students endorse positive attitudes related to seeking mental health support.
Many mental health education and awareness programs for college students spend the bulk of their focus on reducing stigma—time which may be better spent empowering students with the specific skills that they need to support themselves and one another. In considering mental health awareness programs for college students, ensure that you are taking a comprehensive and holistic approach that moves past stigma and into actionable insights—such as how to cope with unanticipated stressors, where to go for help if needed, and how to support a peer that you are concerned about.
Increasingly, students indicate that they are most likely to turn to one another when facing stress or emotional challenges. There has also been a significant increase in student activism around issues that they deem critical to their academic or interpersonal success—with mental health needs often rising to the forefront. Finding opportunities to empower students with the skills to support one another, and to channel their activism in constructive and collaborative ways can be an excellent extension of their learning experience. Activism is, for many students, an important part of their college experience, and an opportunity for them to speak out against injustice in an effort to enact change. They are often the face behind the issues at hand and can provide tremendous insight into the student perspective on critical wellness and safety issues like mental health. When collaborated with respectfully and appropriately, student activists can help promote mental health awareness and also serve as mental health professionals best allies.
Whether it is through existing mental health programs or peer education groups on campus, or through formal involvement with an organization like Active Minds, explore ways to create space and guidance for allowing students to connect with one another to drive policy and programmatic change. And, if you are an institution that is using Mental Well-being for Students, you have access to student engagement data for those students who wish to get more involved with mental health outreach efforts in the community.
At a time when employees and students alike are struggling with the ever-changing landscape of higher education in the COVID-19 world, a clear and demonstrated commitment to mental health awareness from senior leadership has never been more important. There is growing evidence that suggests that investment in mental health awareness for college students can not only benefit the well-being of students but the bottom line of institutions as well. By prioritizing investment in resources, staffing, policies, and programmatic efforts that put student mental health on par with physical health, senior leaders can support some of their most vulnerable populations during this time of need.
Mental health education programs, like EVERFI’s newest course Mental Well-being for Students, are one way in which communities can demonstrate their impact on mental health while also providing students with the skills, language, and information that they need to enhance positive coping and navigate potential challenges. By deploying scalable mental health awareness and education programs as part of the academic experience, colleges and universities can cast a wide net around all students and ensure that each community member has a shared language and understanding of one of the issues that impact them most.