We’re all aware of the responsibility that colleges have to foster academic and professional growth, prepare young adults for future careers, and provide them with opportunities to learn life skills such as time management. However, while not always widely recognized, higher ed institutions also have a responsibility to be a safe space where young adults can develop a sense of self-awareness, cultivate their own values and explore how to best support their well-being. College is an immense period of growth for us, and it’s in our best interest that the colleges we attend are mindful of how interactions between students and administration are fostered. These relationships—with professors, faculty members, campus leaders and university representatives—determines whether students find campus a safe space or not.
I want to encourage college leaders to aim to be not only a safe space but also a brave space—a place where productive dialogue is cultivated and where risks are taken to create an environment that encourages equal participation across all identities. According to a recent Student Voice survey on the current state of student mental health, LGBTQIA+ students were twice as likely as straight students to rate their mental health as poor. Students in lower socioeconomic classes and students of color were also more likely to rate their mental health as poor, compared to peers who are white and/or in other socioeconomic classes, found the survey, which was conducted in March by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse with support from Kaplan.
When we think about how to make a brave space, we must understand what underrepresented groups of students find most important, which requires proactive, meaningful engagement of student stakeholders. It’s more than just making a statement whenever a crisis occurs; it is a call for action, and for all actions within the space to be done with care and compassion. It requires listening to the ideas, values and opinions of students.
As a member of my Active Minds chapter at the University of Central Florida, the greatest changes we’ve accomplished on my campus have come from collaboration between student advocates and faculty. When having these conversations, we like to ask the following questions:
- What are the most pressing issues faced by our campus community with regard to mental health right now?
- What policies, actions or messages may help lead to meaningful change?
- What will help promote a culture that is supportive of mental health?
There are ever-evolving conversations that need to happen consistently and are responsive to the varying needs of students at different points in time.
It is essential to maintain a continuous presence and emphasis on mental health within student life, from the first day a student sets foot in a classroom to the day they receive their degree. Campus administrators can work with student advocates to create events that promote well-being. Likewise, faculty can guide student advocates to resources for establishing mental well-being as a priority in one’s personal or academic life.
To achieve this, my Active Minds chapter has first worked with the President’s Student Advisory Council—a council for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives under the Office of the President—to establish a welcome-back event each fall. During this event, students are introduced to resources on campus that help them look after their physical and mental health. They are also greeted with Popsicles and other goodies as a fun way to start the semester.
With the same council, we have worked to include mental health crisis line numbers on all student IDs. We’re proud to note that a significant portion of student IDs, over 30,000, now include these hotline numbers as a direct resource for students to utilize.
Our chapter has continuously worked with student government leaders over the past year. This collaboration has been a pivotal point in serving the student body of one of the largest universities in the nation.
Crises can and will still occur. Harm reduction and suicide prevention must be a priority when changing the culture around mental health, with both faculty and students involved in the education and training.
We hold a seat within the Disability Caucus, giving us a special position to provide advice and support for legislation concerning mental health. Through that caucus, we’ve sponsored proclamations for the creation of a community response team, to address incidents such as mental health crises and drug overdoses and for the recognition of May as Mental Health Month.
We were also able to create a proclamation to create and recognize the third week of April as Stress Less Week®, an official Active Minds initiative designed to provide education about stress and anxiety and build communities that are supportive of mental health; this year, the proclamation was recreated and signed by the mayor of Orlando.
While these are great strides, the action cannot stop here. Crises can and will still occur. Harm reduction and suicide prevention must be a priority when changing the culture around mental health, with both faculty and students involved in the education and training. As a chapter, we offer VAR®, or Validate-Appreciate-Refer, Active Minds’ conversation tool, training for student organizations to help teach us all how to listen and respond to everyday conversations on mental health.
We are also working on different campaigns with harm reduction as the focus—specifically, we advocate for the provision of mental health first aid training and the development of risk-management training modules for student leaders, as well as the expansion of on-campus counseling staff and wellness programs for the community. We also involve ourselves in research to determine how to tackle suicide prevention at different levels of development.
Changing the culture around mental health occurs with small, meaningful steps. This is best reflected in our chapter through the positive reactions we receive by simply tabling outside our student union, with small activities that engage the students who choose to stop by and say hello.
Our general body meetings are another example, as they are simply spaces for open conversation and communication.
I encourage professors and administrators to engage with student advocates and get involved with this important cause. Small steps taken by staff and faculty—such as checking in with students with questions like “How are you doing?” or “Are you OK?”—can be incredibly profound and help to foster a culture that is more supportive of mental health and create brave spaces on our campuses for students to grow.