Published on 2019/10/24

The EvoLLLution | The Wellness-Completion Connection: A New Approach to Student Mental Health
As college leaders recognize the connection between mental health and academic completion, new ways of supporting wellness are surfacing in unexpected places. But adult students are still underserved compared to their younger peers, despite being under the added stress of maintaining a career and supporting a family.

The transition to college life can trigger a perfect storm of mental duress, with career and financial uncertainty, social pressures and a torrent of new experiences.

The statistics are startling. The suicide rate has tripled among young adults ages 15-24 since the 1950s, and 40 percent of college students report feeling so depressed that basic daily functions are difficult. An October 2018 report from the American Psychological Association confirmed that over one third of first-year college students struggle with mental illness, while the National Association for Mental Illness found that 40 percent do not seek help.

Mental health challenges are especially common for working adult students who need to balance the demands of career, family and academics. The Anxiety and Depression Society of America found that 65% experience significant anxiety. Further, because older adult students are often expected to recognize that they need help and then ask for it, these students don’t receive the same type of support as “traditional” students.

This challenge is not new. Mental health has long been a key concern for student affairs administrators. What has changed is a growing recognition that mental health support can have a direct, quantifiable impact on completion. While targeted support with academic or financial challenges can address well-documented completion barriers, institutional leaders are learning that investments in mental health can equip students to navigate the often unanticipated challenges of college life.

It would be easy to write off these challenges as something beyond faculty and staff’s influence. But systems theory tells us that if stress is a manifestation of discrete challenges, students and institutions should tackle problems at their source. Even the best-resourced institutions struggle to address the multiplicity of challenges students face.

Against that backdrop, institutional efforts to cultivate competencies like resilience can have a force-multiplying effect. They can complement student success initiatives by encouraging greater student agency and providing tools to maximize existing resources. They can smooth out speed bumps before they turn into roadblocks, by addressing the causes of—and the responses to—challenges.

Moving from a culture of mental illness to mental wellness has been a long-standing goal for the student affairs community. So how are institutions incorporating new mental health strategies into student success programs? And what can we learn from their experiences?

College and university leaders increasingly recognize that supporting the whole student is central to their institutions’ missions, because student success is linked to experiences beyond the classroom. The once-linear college pathway, and the uniform experiences that came with it, is a relic. The “average” college student most likely works full- or part-time, supports a family member, and manages career responsibilities that compound the stress of a college education. Sara Goldrick-Rab, founder of the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, succinctly put it: “Today’s college students are the most overburdened and undersupported in American history.”

What to make of this? It’s easy for institutional limitations—financial, physical or material—to widen into gaps that prevent us from reaching students, particularly those in crisis. Student affairs administrators can’t be everywhere at once, nor can they simply rely on these issues to vanish. It is incumbent to strengthen the wellness-completion connection.

As colleges better identify mental health challenges, institutions are deploying more nuanced responses to help students in adverse circumstances. They have shifted away from a reactive approach to building “serious situation policies” and training staff members to recognize, assess and assist students in difficult circumstances.

Intentional policies are helping to establish the right response protocols for students in crisis. What about more common scenarios that are equally detrimental to student success?

Institutions are increasingly bolstering student services to truly foster wellness. UCLA has invested heavily in internet-based screenings and online mental health treatment. Georgia State University has an extensive micro-grant program to reward students for moving closer to completion while reducing financial stress. Ohio State University operates a 24-hour food cupboard to help students facing food insecurity get the food they need to succeed academically.

Beyond professional counseling and financial support, many institutions are also empowering advisors, coaches and other staff to help students cope with challenges and tap into their own support networks. In many cases, they are leveraging technology to improve access to services, deploying secure messaging, online appointment booking, chatbots and other tools to ensure students receive support irrespective of time and place.

Excelsior College, which serves more than 38,000 mostly working adult students, trained their ombudsperson and accessibility services employees to quickly assess students in crisis and refer them to appropriate paraprofessional, counseling and health services within their communities.

New student mental health approaches are also surfacing in unexpected places, in part, because necessity is the mother of invention. One rural community college forged a partnership with a mobile crisis unit to come to the campus or students’ residences at no charge.

These are just a few compelling examples of how institutions are responding to student mental health. Nationally, old ways of thinking about campus mental health and what it means to be a college student are starting to change. But as greater acceptance takes root, the work of improving campus wellness will continuously evolve. Complex realities are leading to a more holistic approach to wellness and completion: a positive change for students and institutions.

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