October 16, 2015

By Ashli Haggard

NAMI on Campus at John Jay College members sport their #IWillListen shirts to encourage dialogue around mental health conditions.

College is a time full of changes. For many, it is their first time living away from home, their friends are far away and the academic workload is tougher than ever before. Factor in relationships, alcohol and drugs, late night studying and everything else that is crammed into these four years that you’ve been told will impact the rest of your life, and it can be really hard for students to cope.

Ideally, if a student started having mental health trouble, they would reach out to a counselor, their advisor, call or text a hotline or talk with a friend. However, the reality is that college students are the least likely group to seek help for mental health, though according to the National Institute of Mental Health, the reason why is not really understood.

A recent NAMI survey asked students what keeps them from seeking help and they reported that reluctance comes from stigma. Students fear that professors and peers will perceive them negatively and that their medical information will not be confidential. This stigma keeps a lot of students silent until their situation becomes so severe it disrupts their academic performance, isolates them from peers and family and ultimately, end with tragic suicide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in college—only accidents account for more deaths—and according to the CDC the suicide rate has been increasing.

How can universities and colleges reduce the stigma that prevents students from reaching out for help? One idea is to create “safe spaces” on campus for students to find support.

A safe space is a welcoming environment where students can connect with one another and talk without fear of being negatively judged for it. Safe spaces can be physical areas set aside for students to take a break and recharge between juggling responsibilities, like The Mindfulness Room at Carnegie Mellon University. Created by Angela Ng, her project website describes The Mindfulness Room as “a room specifically built for you so that you may remove yourself from stressful days and relax.” Putting external stressors aside for a moment can create a life balance that promotes mental health and allows for opportunities for students to connect with one another.

Groups that offer crucial social connections such as clubs, athletic teams, cultural organizations or NAMI on Campus clubs can also be safe spaces. Students building trust with their peers and having a dialogue about their entire experience in college—both the fun and the struggles—can make a huge difference in the mental health of an entire campus. These spaces create a sense of belonging on a new campus in a new town with new friends.

At large universities, usually there is no shortage of student organizations for students to join and find their safe space, but what can smaller schools do?

For these schools, it is up to the faculty and staff to create those spaces. Counselors, advisors, professors and administrators can also hold events, such as inviting speakers, hosting movie screenings and discussions or holding public events, to engage students in conversations about mental health. NAMI’s stigmafree On Campus makes it easy for campus leaders to eliminate negative attitudes towards mental health, no matter the size of their campus.

Kristen Precht, an assistant English professor at Kent University, gives her students brochures from the campus-counseling center and ten points towards their class grade for saving the counseling center’s number in their phone. Precht explains, “There’s a good chance that someone will come to them suicidal, and even if they help them once, the battle isn’t over. People need more. The people in the brochure can give them more. It is a simple way to get tools into the hands of people who may well need them.”

Safe spaces are simple in practice, but are critical to student life. Having a place to say, “This is really hard for me,” and be met with a peer responding, “I’ve felt that way too” can create a supportive community. From there, students can share what resources are available to help or even access them together.

When students feel like they have a safe support network of friends, they are more likely to talk about mental health. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center lists peer support and an inclusive environment as two of the three protective factors that decrease the likelihood of suicide (the third is individual personality characteristics). These protective factors contribute to resilience, or the capacity to cope positively with challenges. Increased resilience will increase utilization of professional services, decrease the amount of students dropping out and help to prevent student suicide. Having a safe space on campus can make all of those college changes a little easier to bear.

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