Prioritizing College Student Mental Health & Wellness When Choosing a School
Over the past decade, the number of college students struggling with mental health and wellness challenges has grown at an alarming rate. Many students feel immense pressure to perform well academically while dealing with ever-present worries about issues like our environment, equity, and social justice.
For that reason, it's more important now than ever for students to carefully consider the mental health resources and support services available at universities and colleges when deciding where to study.
In this article, we'll share tips for finding a university that prioritizes the well-being of its students. Then, we'll tell you about a university recognized for its work in this area so you know what comprehensive support and programs look like.
And we also share insight from two experts who created a digital mental wellness app designed to revolutionize how mental health is addressed in the education system.
Whether you're a high school student beginning your college search or a transfer student looking to make a change, this article will help you find the right school that prioritizes your mental health and well-being.
How Many College Students Struggle with Mental Health Challenges?
Let's start by sharing some data highlighting the importance of this topic. In general, college students experience higher levels of stress and pressure than their non-college-going peers.
"College students have just entered a new, complicated stage in their lives—emerging adulthood," explained Yewande Shitta-Bey, a high school student and co-founder of a mental health and wellness app called Eudai.
"Most students are living away from their families for the first time; establishing the path they need to take to reach their ideal future; figuring out their identity while still developing it; and are given the option of choice like never before," Yewande continued. "Simply put, it's complicated, sometimes awkward, and immensely stressful."
These stresses and other life challenges have led to a sharp increase in students struggling.
The data from a recent 2021 study shows that 60% of college students either self-identified or met the criteria for having a mental health challenge, representing an increase of over 50% in just the last seven years.
These numbers come from The Healthy Minds Study, a critical piece of research colleges use to identify student needs, evaluate support programs, and plan for additional student mental health support services and programs.
Additional college student mental health statistics shared in the study include:
- 41% of students reported suffering from depression.
- 34% of students reported suffering from anxiety.
- 12% of students reported struggling with an eating disorder.
- 23% of students reported non-suicidal self-injury.
- 43% of students reported feeling isolated or left out.
You can read the complete study (linked above) for detailed information on specific mental health diagnoses, student use of campus services, and much more.
Colleges Programs to Support Student Mental Health
It's easy to think that wellness and mental health programs are something separate from academics. But the reality is that they go hand in hand in facilitating student success.
Why is mental health important for college students? If a student is struggling or feels unsafe, it's far less likely that they'll realize academic success. Colleges and universities know this and are working to support students with innovative and comprehensive programs.
Whether it's shifting the narrative about mental health so more students feel comfortable accessing it or dedicating more resources to rapid access and support, higher education institutions are stepping up to support their college students' mental health.
What a Mentally Healthy University Looks Like: Meet Virginia Tech
One University that has been recognized for its dedication to student mental health is Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, or Virginia Tech. This school was given the 2022 Healthy Campus Award for its innovative programs and practices, including their:
Residential Well-being initiative: This innovative residential model promotes well-being, student success, and inclusion – transforming on-campus living and allowing higher education to catalyze cultural change.
InclusiveVT Project 2022: In conjunction with Virginia Tech's Principles of Community and their Student Affairs Anti-Racism Commitment, this program increases access, inclusion, and diversity while eliminating bias and discrimination, increasing understanding of these issues, and acknowledging the behaviors and structures that perpetuate inequality.
Mental Health Initiatives Task Force: Created to promote student mental health on campus. The outcomes of this initiative include a collective, focused approach to well-being to ensure a sustainable system to unite mental health efforts across campus.
The takeaway is that plenty of colleges prioritize student wellness, and you should feel comfortable screening the schools on your list for similar initiatives to those put in place by Virginia Tech.
Next, we discuss what to look for when screening schools and how to judge a college as mentally healthy and supportive.
Screening Colleges for Mental Health & Wellness Support
As we've discussed, the transition to a new academic and social environment, the pressure to succeed academically, and the experience of living away from home can all contribute to stress and mental health challenges.
Choosing a school that prioritizes college students' mental health and wellness allows you to access resources and support should you ever need them, even if you don't need them today.
So how can you tell if a college strives to prioritize student mental health? Here are a few things to look for.
Are there mental health services on campus?
College campuses typically offer a variety of mental health resources for students. These resources can include counseling, therapy services, support groups, and educational programs.
One common resource is a counseling center, where you can receive individual or group therapy. Licensed mental health professionals, like therapists and counselors, support students with various mental health concerns, including anxiety, depression, and stress. All care is confidential and intended to be accessible when you need it.
Another resource you'll typically find on campus is a student health center, which may also offer mental health services. These centers are more like a clinic or doctor's office in that they might be staffed with psychiatrists or nurses who can provide medication management or other types of treatment.
Are there opportunities for building and maintaining social connections?
Studies show that people who feel supported and connected have better health outcomes than their less socially connected peers. Look for colleges and universities that recognize this connection and find ways to help students build and maintain social networks.
"Most colleges and universities have mental health and mentorship-related programs and services. But, what will really set apart one program/service from another is an emphasis on community," Yewande Shitta-Bey, the mental wellness app creator, explained.
"An underlying issue with being an emerging adult is that young people often feel like they have to figure things out on their own. Therefore, being actively supported in a positive space is necessary to maintain good mental health."
Are there safe spaces on campus - especially for marginalized groups?
Marginalized groups are particularly vulnerable to mental health challenges. A recent survey conducted by GLSEN revealed that more than 90% of students report hearing homophobic phrases or slurs in their schools. Nearly 60% of those students said they had heard those comments directly from teachers or administrators. This is unacceptable, and learning institutions are working to protect against this unsafe and unwelcome behavior.
Having safe spaces on campus, especially for marginalized groups, is critical because it provides a supportive and inclusive environment where students can express themselves freely and feel a sense of belonging.
Safe spaces can provide students with physical and emotional safety, allowing them to speak openly about their experiences, share their concerns, and seek support from others who share similar experiences. This can help to reduce feelings of isolation and promote a sense of community and belonging, which can, in turn, improve mental health and academic success.
Safe campus spaces also convey that the institution values diversity and inclusion. This confirmation can help you decide where to go to school.
Are there peer-to-peer support networks in place?
Peer support programs are usually run by trained students who offer comfort, information, and referrals to other resources. These support providers are non-judgmental, active listeners who can be found in many different contexts, such as in dormitories, through student organizations, or in online support groups.
"Confiding in peers is much less intimidating for many students than consulting a therapist or other counselors," said Chad Jordan, a freshman at the University of Central Florida and co-founder of the mental health and wellness app, Eudai.
"Moreover, students will always have more peers around them than trained professional mental health experts and counselors, meaning that peer support grand-scale mental health support," Chad continued.
"In my mind, peer-to-peer support is simply making a new friend, and friends are always there for one another during hard times. It can be as simple as keeping in contact online every week and scheduling meeting times to chat in person or perform an activity together occasionally."
The Role of Apps & Online Support Groups
Self-help tools like apps and online support groups can also be great resources to supplement on-campus programs. As Chad mentioned, many students report using these tools when they feel uncomfortable seeking help in person or need additional support between therapy sessions.
While the college might not supply these resources, you can request a list at your school's counseling center or within your peer-to-peer support network. And the good news is that more and more resources like these are being created each day.
Look out for new resources like Eudai
One new resource is an app called Eudai, which was recently designed by three students, Alexis Buggam, Chad Jordan, and Yewande Shitta-Bey. We introduced you to Chad and Yewande earlier in this article.
Eudai will be a free digital mental wellness app developed for and by youth to foster connection, reduce isolation, and provide positive affirmation in a safe space.
Eudai will have two core pieces of functionality. One is online mentoring, which will be facilitated in partnership with the Center for Children and Families at Florida International University through undergraduate psychology students. The second is discussion forums.
Alexis, Chad, and Yewande created this app with the support of the local college access network Bridge2Life South Florida and Florida International University's Dr. Jonathan Comer.
Team Eudai seeks to partner with school districts to revolutionize how mental health is addressed in the education system and eventually expand nationally and globally. They are currently seeking funding to go forth with app development.
Ready to Find Colleges that Will Support Your Wellness?
Now that you know what to ask when searching for a school that prioritizes mental health in college students, it's time to get to work building out your college list and touring campuses.
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