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Student Mental Health: Whose responsibility is it?
Mental health among academic students continues to be a significant issue, causing absences and withdrawal. Disagreements exist regarding who should take responsibility and what needs to change.
Mental health is a prevalent issue — affecting not only university students, but even prospective and would-be students. A recent survey found that mental health is the most common issue among university applicants, affecting one in five UK applicants. Of these students, 30% had taken some time off school due to their mental health. College enrollment rates are lower now than before the pandemic, and three in ten unenrolled adults cite mental health as a key reason why they can’t go to school. In a recent survey of 3,000 students, about half felt their mental health negatively impacts their academic success.
Although the student mental health crisis is nothing new, the way universities are stepping up to the challenge is evolving. We’ll dive into how expectations are changing and the impact this has for the broader academic community. With increased pressure on professors to care for students’ mental health, and the corresponding mental health crisis of educators themselves, it’s important to take stock of how this issue is being addressed.
“The emotionally intelligent person awards themselves the time to determine what gives their working life meaning and has the confidence and tenacity to try and find an accomodation between their inner priorities and the demands of the world.” - Alain De Button, The School of Life: An Emotional Education
The current system, and what it lacks
Student mental health has been a rising issue the past decade, with a particularly clear spike during and since the pandemic. Academic institutions are believed to hold a significant amount of responsibility when it comes to the physical and mental wellbeing of all its constituents, and students, in particular. In most cases, many have responded to this responsibility by offering a variety of resources and by making professors and staff part of the solution. Although these approaches often have fair motivation, they often fall short of a truly sustainable solution to the issue.
Reliance on professors may not be ideal
A recent survey of 3,000 college students found that ~40% believed that professors should play a role in alleviating stress. Moreover, the pandemic further solidified faculty’s role as the “first line of defense” when it comes to spotting student distress. Unsurprisingly, similar trends hold true for K-12 schooling, where teachers are given responsibility for the mental health of students.
However, some argue that the care of mental health should rest on professionals, not on academic staff. Moreover, shifting the focus to universities is arguably even a “distraction” from the lack of resources and focus by entities like the NHS mental health provision. Nonetheless, plenty of teachers and university professors have received training in order to better “recognize, respond, and refer,” student mental health issues.
As societal expectations of teaching roles shifts, more and more responsibility is placed on their shoulders, which may contribute to increased stress and pressure in these roles. Teachers, professors and administrators are facing a mental health crisis of their own. For this reason, educational institutions should carefully consider what responsibilities they add to the growing list of duties already instilled on educators.
The “resources” paradox
Academic institutions are often well-equipped with various services that can help students with their mental health, from health services and peer groups to extracurricular activities and sports. However, all these attempts are futile if students aren’t made aware of what is available to them. That’s often the case, as one recent review found, with 42% of UK students being unaware of where to access mental health resources.
Thus, institutions need to put as much effort into clearly communicating the resources as they do into creating them in the first place. In fact, given the proliferation of free mental health tools and apps, it may even be in a university’s best interest to shift spending into promotion of free and available tools, rather than building their own. One example is how Vanderbilt, during the pandemic, created a competition among students based on how many hours they spent meditating using the Headspace app. The program was evidently successful enough, as the university still sponsors students for free on the app today.
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Although universities and academic institutions are trying to help support student mental health, it’s unclear if they are pursuing the most effective strategies. As this recent comprehensive review argues, it’s vital to review the evidence behind different interventions to evaluate their efficacy.
Overall, the best solutions tend to take advantage of the fact that large-scale institutions can efficiently connect their constituents to the resources they need.
Training students in emotional intelligence
Although plenty of media attention is given to various university resources that exist in the aftermath of mental health issues (i.e. therapy, counseling, etc.), there is far less emphasis on more preventative forms of intervention. This is arguably one of the most underrated and effective strategies.
A significant body of evidence indicates that students can better cope and thrive when they are given the tools they need to address their own mental health issues. This is referred to as skill-training, and involves teaching social, emotional and coping skills to students. It’s listed in the image below as an “Early Intervention”.
Skill-driven interventions may include a wide range of approaches and methods, from mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga (enhancing self-awareness and self-management) to honing interpersonal skills. Social psychologist and writer on the mental health crisis, Jonathan Haidt, would concur that such methods return the locus of control back to the students themselves, and are key in enabling happiness and growth.
Offering and communicating resources
Students may have access to mental health resources like free counselling or access to online apps, but aren’t aware. Simply having these resources isn’t enough. Instead, universities need to consider innovative and potentially entertaining ways of clearly informing students of these services.
When students return to West Virginia University this year, they will be greeted left and right by an endless supply of yo-yos. The yo-yos are embellished with a QR code, linking to a health portal. All students are required to set up an account, which offers copious resources on a variety of health issues. The whimsy and light-heartedness of this approach makes the process more appealing for students who may otherwise overlook it. For the university, this isn’t only an approach to combatting mental health problems, but also other widespread issues, such as the ongoing opioid crisis.
Unique services, sports, activities, etc.
A growing trend occur campus groups is peer counselling or group therapy, with some students even creating their own services, where they support one another by open discussion. Plenty of universities also offer crisis hotlines or counselling sessions, although these are typically limited in nature, and rely still on referring students out to more expensive services.
Although not limited to the realm of academia, Uruguay has recently announced a dramatic plan to address its high suicide rates. Namely, by making antidepressant medication easily available and free, as well as establishing youth centres offering sports and educational programs. Although Uruguay is focused on combatting teen suicide, it is nonetheless relevant for the global mental health epidemic. Surprisingly, this isn’t an obvious tactic for universities. Although some focus on sports and fitness programmes to help combat mental health issues, generally the emphasis is put more heavily on counselling than activities.
Mental health problems on campuses across the U.S. have increased almost 50% in the past decade, and show no signs of abating. It’s more important than ever for universities to effectively and sustainably address this issue — while also avoiding putting undue strain on faculty and staff. As educational institutions, it makes sense for these entities to promote self-education, helping students to understand and serve themselves better.
What have been your own experiences with managing the continuous mental health crisis? What do you hope institutions would do differently to better address it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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