How are Colleges Addressing Mental Health?

by ALEX HAAS '21


On October 10, it was World Mental Health Day and we saw tons of people post on their Instagram and Snapchat stories commemorating the day to help spread awareness. When you think about it, it is amazing how much progress has been made to destigmatize mental illness just within the past decade. However, there is still a lot of ground to cover, as mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and chronic stress are at an all time high in this country. Additionally, Americans have seen an even greater increase in mental illnesses due to the pandemic. According to a poll conducted in mid-July, 53% of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted by the pandemic; many of those adults reported specific effects of their current mental health state including difficulty sleeping, eating, and increases in substance use (source). As seen in adults, everything going on in the world right now is no doubt taking a toll on the mental health of young, impressionable teens as well.


Here at Ursula, we know we have the opportunity to talk to our amazing counselors -- or any trusted adult. We have Angelo, our emotional support animal, and we have the Hope Squad. But as each class moves on in the coming years, it is important to know what colleges are doing to help their students with their mental health and which colleges in particular are prioritizing mental health issues. “As school counselors at SUA, our department strives to emphasize to our students how important it will be for them to become good self advocates for their own mental and physical health while at college,” says Ms. Long on behalf of SUA’s counseling department.


Recently, we saw thousands of college students return to classes both on campus and remotely. “Leaving home and beginning the first year of college can be an incredibly exciting time of new beginnings for students, but it is also a time of great change and transition. Several stressors, including more academic responsibility, sudden independence, adjusting to life with roommates, homesickness and more can add extra layers of stress that one might not initially anticipate,” says Ms. Long. “Research shows us that anxiety and depression is common and even on the rise on college campuses in the fast-paced and uncertain times we live in,” she continues. According to CDC data, suicide rates among American 15-to-24-year-olds have risen 51% over the past 10 years (source). That being said, mental health counseling centers are facing challenges unlike any other in prior decades.


“The good news is colleges and universities are being called to offer more support and cultivate positive mental health more than ever before. This includes developing mindfulness apps, campus initiatives, training to help identify students at risk, and mental health and crisis intervention services,” says Ms. Long. So, what programs in specific are being initiated?

First, for NCAA athletes, the Big 10 gave all of their coaches and players a free subscription to the Calm app, which is the most downloaded mental fitness app. The Calm app is meant to reduce stress and anxiety while simultaneously improving one’s sleep and focus. It has more than 100 hours of original audio with topics ranging from anxiety and stress to sleep and gratitude. Although this app is not free for non-Big 10 athletes, anyone can download it or find other free meditations online. Meditation is a powerful tool and it has proven to help many people cope with their anxiety and stress.


Additionally, many universities have launched their own programs to help improve their students’ mental health. For example, Florida State University (FSU) recently launched their online trauma resilience training after the school noticed many of its students experienced severe community and family stress. It requires all freshmen and transfer students to attend this training, which includes videos, animations, and informational sessions designed to help students find their strengths and better coping strategies. Similarly, Stanford’s Resilience Projects includes personal storytelling and academic skills coaching. Their approach is meant to help students deal with self-doubt and stress as one Stanford alum recalled, “I really remember thinking, ‘I don’t belong here. I shouldn’t be here’—like I was an admissions mistake.” Due to the shortage of mental health providers on college campuses, many universities like FSU and Stanford are providing online resources to help fill that void.


However, many students still prefer in-person support. To provide that, the University of Wisconsin opened the Pruitt Center for Mindfulness and Well Being in 2018. A few of the resources they provide include mindfulness workshops and classes, weekly yoga, and many mindfulness and well-being resources at the university library.


Despite the increasing number of resources and programs colleges are making available to their students, many people continue to struggle with talking about their mental health and addressing their problems. In order to help start the conversation, more than 350 colleges use an online stimulation program called Kognito. Kognito is aimed to help people confront their friends and peers who do not seem quite like themselves. Through Kognito, students learn more about mental health from virtual students and they talk to a virtual student who is in distress to practice.


If you are struggling with your mental health, but do not know how to ask for help, texting for support is another option. There are many free texting hotlines with which you can ask for help. For example, the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota launched the nonprofit Text4Hope, which aims to provide college students with options if they or a loved one is struggling with their mental health.


Additionally, Active Minds is a national organization dedicated to mental health advocacy and currently holds more than 450 campus chapters. It is meant to help students struggling with depression and anxiety understand that they do not need to feel ashamed and that asking for help is a sign of strength rather than weakness.


Researching what colleges are doing to help their students with their mental health is important to consider during your college search process. “If mental health programming has been something that has benefitted you in the past, make that a component of what you are looking for in a college. Ask about student health services while taking college tours and pay attention to the overall emotional culture of the campus on your visits,” says Ms. Long.


Your mental health is so important and it’s amazing to see colleges launching more programs and resources for their students to help tackle this rising issue in developing teens. We deserve to be happy and enjoy our youth rather than be constantly stressed about our grades or whether or not we are worthy. And even if you are not struggling with your mental health in particular, do not forget to hug your friends and family and tell them that you love them. You never know what someone else is struggling with on the inside.


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