September 15, 2023

By Sharon Shapiro and Nadja N. Lopez Reilly

Illustration of students supporting each other
As today’s students face alarming challenges in the realm of mental health, September’s observance of Suicide Prevention Month is an opportune time to start impactful conversations about mental illness and the emotional well-being of young adults.

According to a Healthy Minds Study on 373 campuses, more than 60% of college students met the criteria for at least one mental health challenge during the 2020–2021 school year. The survey also reveals that 83% of students said their mental health struggles had negatively impacted their school performance, and that two-thirds of college students are struggling with loneliness and isolation — an all-time high.

While these challenges are not new, it is clear they have been amplified in recent years by COVID-19 and other factors, and are only getting worse. A new meta-analysis, which tracked data from 345 studies done between 1979 and 2019, all using the UCLA Loneliness Scale, showed that each successive young adult generation is lonelier than the one before.

The distress that so many students are experiencing calls for us to act with urgency and compassion. It also calls for us to find innovative approaches that can reach more young people and help form a stronger network of support for college-age youth.

This Crisis Requires Innovative Solutions

Many colleges understand that the magnitude of current needs warrants a public health response, as opposed to the more typical clinical approach. That is, we can no longer expect a clinical approach that solely relies on weekly one-hour counselling sessions to effectively treat distress. Instead, we need to look for opportunities to build prevention and mental health promotion programs, increase college community engagement and change policies to better support student mental health.

Prevention of mental illness and promotion of mental health are important approaches that will benefit all students, regardless of current levels of distress. Such programming involves psychoeducation, sharing of active coping skills and clearing pathways for accessing help early and quickly. It also involves engaging with students to teach them daily activities that will promote mental health, such as establishing strong, supportive relationships, being mindful of their physical health, forming healthy sleeping habits and finding a community of support.

This generation of college students — ones that weathered the pandemic during their teenage years — experienced a significant interruption to their social connections and skills related to relationship management. Focused opportunities for youth to build a sense of belonging, with structures to check in and follow up when students disengage, are critical.

A number of colleges and universities are on the right track in terms of looking for new ways to support students, building a stronger sense of belonging and incorporating mental health and wellness into classrooms — and their approaches merit broader adoption. For example, Dartmouth College has embarked on a four-year campaign to improve mental health on campus, an initiative that includes life skills development opportunities for undergraduates, fostering social connectedness and a 24-hour on-call crisis counseling line.

Intervention is a Community Effort

Increasing college community engagement means that supporting students’ mental health becomes the focus and responsibility of all adults on campus, not just the purview of staff at the institution’s mental health center. Training for all employees on identifying signs and symptoms of distress, and how to respond to students in a time of crisis, is essential.

Training for professors on understanding how emotional distress impacts learning and how to integrate social-emotional learning into academic instruction is another key strategy. The Center for Behavioral Health, Equity and Leadership in Schools at William James College is a pioneer in training faculty to recognize these challenges while also incorporating wellness practices into class curriculum. This does not imply that professors will be diagnosing or delivering treatment; instead, it indicates they will have a greater understanding of the inextricable connection between emotions and learning and how they can best support students emotional and academic health.

William James College’s model can be replicated around the country. Ongoing training with faculty and staff — including how to address leaves of absence, how to intervene promptly when students are disengaging and how to best support learning — will lead to improved policies and procedures. Addressing the adults’ own emotional health is also critical. The availability of ongoing training, support and resources for faculty and staff will ensure that they are prepared to maintain a strong and safe community of belonging on campus.

Further, colleges and universities can take a more proactive approach to prevent potential mental health crises before they occur. One way to do this is surrounding leaves of absence. For instance, in 2021, the Ruderman Family Foundation and Boston University’s Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences cocreated two first-of-their-kind manuals — one for students, — with best practices for campus leave-of-absence policies and for using a leave productively. Such tools can serve to help campuses formulate more effective policies before crises occur.

If academic institutions increasingly implement these innovative approaches and others, the outlook for students’ mental health nationwide is poised to be a brighter one in the years to come.

Sharon Shapiro is Trustee and Community Liaison at the Ruderman Family Foundation. Nadja N. Lopez Reilly, PhD is Executive Director of the Center for Behavioral Health, Equity, and Leadership in Schools at William James College, and an adjunct faculty member in the college’s Organizational and Leadership Psychology Department.

A version of this piece originally appeared in Psychology Today. It has been edited and reprinted with permission.

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