Improving student well-being with personalized tools and their input (opinion)

There has never been a generation of college students that has faced the unique challenges, current students are up against. From living through a pandemic to coping with ongoing racial violence, dealing with the threat of climate disaster and increased feelings of isolation and disconnection, it is no wonder that recent Student Voice survey data from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse shows that nine out of 10 students have struggled with their mental health. If it’s true that up to 90 percent of college students have experienced negative mental health, what does this imply about our current capacity as administrators to adequately support students through traditional means of care? Further, if traditional models of care are no longer adequate, how do we adjust our approach to better support student success?

It is well understood that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health and well-being. In an students’ complex world, effectively supporting unique needs has become equally complex. While these nuances create unforeseen challenges in providing care, they are not an excuse to continue with the status quo.

The truth remains that symptoms of nearly 75 percent of mental health conditions first appear when someone is between the ages of 18 and 24, the age range of the largest percentage of college students, and pre-pandemic data show college counseling center demand increasing at a pace seven times faster than enrollment growth. Accordingly, it is not possible for our counseling centers, as currently constructed, to keep up with this increasing demand. We have entered a new age in which students have heightened awareness of their mental health, and many students have been seeking care while enrolled in K-12.

While this is certainly positive, it has an unintended consequence of creating a gap in our ability to support the majority of students who could benefit from care, as even the best of counseling centers can only provide support to 15 to 20 percent of their respective student bodies (with the average counseling center serving about 10 percent). In a world that personalizes students’ wants and needs, it is imperative that our support resources adapt to a more timely and customized approach that expands beyond the counseling center.

A critical place to start is with developing systems of care that directly address needs related to the identities and lived experiences of students from marginalized communities. For example, 2015 data from the Healthy Minds Network show help-seeking behavior in students of color to be trending lower than that of white students, with Black students 15 percent less likely to seek help. In 2020, that data trend remained virtually the same, with Black students’ overall help-seeking behavior trending even lower, along with an 11 percent increase in feelings of depression during that time.

This highlights the fact that historical differences in help seeking have persisted. As campus administrators, it is our duty to close this gap and develop ways to connect with, and support, the mental health journeys of students with marginalized identities.

Priorities and Investments

We can begin innovating our approach to care by developing institutional practices that prioritize equity and inclusion while also investing in more upstream tools and programs that directly address each student’s needs within the larger context of our campus communities and intersecting identities. Colorado State University has invested in robust multicultural counseling services, gender-affirming care, skill-building workshops, a strong group therapy program, an intensive outpatient program and a range of digital mental health tools, as well as education and self-care resources.

Doing so has had the benefit of ensuring inclusive interventions that work for both majority and minoritized populations. Through inclusive design (ie, researching and co-developing interventions with students from marginalized groups), it has become clear that the more intentional we are in our approach to supporting the unique needs of diverse groups, the higher the likelihood that our students will access the tools they need for success during college.

By building up diverse support channels, we have been able to prioritize student success and create additional access points for students to seek the help they need in a timely manner. The most overt way we have addressed this is through co-developing the YOU platform as a way to provide 24-7 access to digital, upstream mental health and well-being tools that personalize to each individual’s unique identities and experiences. At CSU, we found that to effectively meet the needs of our diverse students, the best approach was through a confidential and anonymous tool that allowed them to explore timely mental health resources that were relevant to their identities, regardless of if they ever stepped foot in the counseling center. This approach has allowed us to decrease stigma and barriers to help seeking, knowing that some students will be able to access the support they need within the platform and others will be referred to the appropriate support services.

While nearly all students in the Student Voice survey, which is sponsored by Kaplan, have struggled with some sort of mental health challenge while in college, just 15 percent of students have decided to engage in counseling, while 74 percent have not used any related on Campus services. Our conversation must shift to addressing the challenge of adequately supporting students who need help but aren’t receiving it.

When institutions are able to invest in support networks that extend outside the walls of the counseling center, they are able to more effectively meet a larger percentage of student needs, which serves a dual purpose of supporting student success and easing the pressure on our counseling centers . Through cultivating more proactive, upstream approaches to student support, we can develop scalable and effective prevention strategies that provide identity-specific resources, teach coping strategies, build conflict resolution skills and allow students to prioritize their well-being and success during their college years.

An equally important yet often underprioritized approach is investing in resources and tools that provide this same mental health support to our faculty and staff members. Research published in 2021 shows that only 51 percent of faculty report having a good idea of ​​how to recognize a student in emotional or mental distress, with 73 percent of faculty welcoming additional professional development on the topic of student mental health.

Paired with the fact that faculty are often the first line of defense in supporting students—and they are also facing extreme feelings of burnout in their own regard—it has never been more important to invest in a long-term strategy that ensures our faculty and staff receive the support they need for their own well-being, which will bolster their ability to aid their students.

When institutions can provide this same level of care to their faculty and staff members, not only are we equipping our educators with the skills to help best students navigate their mental health challenges, we are also creating access points for faculty and staff to better develop the skills they need to flourish in their personal and professional lives. This focus on personalized care helps institutions support happier, healthier individuals, which ultimately cultivates more cohesion campuswide.

To that end, as campus leaders, we must shift our focus further upstream and co-design programming alongside our students, faculty and staff members. By moving away from a more traditional, siloed approach to campus care, we can begin removing many of the unintentional hurdles that have historically impeded access to adequate mental health and well-being support (ie, lack of awareness of services, scheduling challenges, costs). , etc.). Through this kind of prevention-based innovation, we can better connect with diverse campus populations, with a greater focus on how to truly understand our community’s needs, and ultimately implement programming that provides a foundation for more successful campus communities.

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