Statistics on college student mental health can seem alarming: In the 2018-2019 Healthy Minds Study, 42% of college students reported thoughts of self-harm or symptoms of a mental health problem (Eisenberg et al., 2019). These statistics represent the continuation of a long-term trend of steady growth in rates of anxiety, depression, and social anxiety, along with other mental health concerns (Center for Collegiate Mental Health, 2018). Ultimately, only 40% of college students were categorized as being in a state of positive mental health (Eisenberg et al., 2019).

Traditionally, mental wellness may have seemed outside the bounds of faculty professional relationships with students. However, learning and mental wellness are inextricably intertwined. Basic cognitive capacities such as memory and concentration, as well as the problem-solving ability we hope students will develop through challenging coursework, may be diminished by high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression (Schwabe & Wolf, 2010; Burt et al., 1995; Kertzman et al., 2010; Arnsten, 2009; Luisi Rodrigues et al., 2019). A staggering 77% of students reported that their academic performance was impaired by emotional or mental health problems on at least one day in the prior 4 weeks (Eisenberg et al., 2019; Abelson, 2019). Ultimately, our relatively long-term relationships and frequent interactions with students leave us uniquely well-placed to help them develop the habits and dispositions to sustain mental well-being and guide them to seek help to recover it when lost.

The university’s Act-Belong-Commit initiative for mental wellness provides a framework to consider specific evidence-based practices that we can embed in our teaching, academic advising, and mentoring roles that will support students’ mental well-being over time. Additionally, training students in skills and dispositions that help them manage the pressures of coursework and life can have a tremendous impact. A sampling of these strategies is introduced in the “Sustain” section below.

Faculty also play a critical role for students experiencing a mental health crisis. Currently, 45% of college students with mental health problems are not receiving treatment, in part because a similar percentage (47%) believed that others would think less of them for doing so (Eisenberg et al., 2019). While most of us are not trained as mental health professionals, students reach out to faculty for informal support more often than to any other adult figure (Eisenberg et al., 2019). Ideas for planning to support students in crisis (starting even before the crisis begins) are discussed in the “Help” section below.

Finally, while faculty play an important role in student mental health, we cannot and should not support students in all the ways they need. Instead, by learning about resources available at Elon and understanding the expertise of our colleagues, we prepare ourselves to connect students in need with others who can help them recover from crisis and build a holistic support system. Relevant Elon resources are collected under the “Connect” section below.

Sustain

Much like physical wellness, mental wellness can be nurtured and supported through specific practices and behaviors. Our professional practices in teaching, academic advising, and mentoring students lend themselves to supporting student wellness behaviors in a variety of ways, many of which we may already use because they support student learning or engagement, create a more supportive classroom climate, or simply fit our personalities comfortably. However, knowing that these practices also impact students’ mental wellness allows us to intentionally deploy them to serve that purpose as well.

The table below provides a few examples of approaches we can integrate into these three facets of our professional work to support student mental wellness in four separate categories: Encouraging them to Act (“Keep active in as many ways as you can…”), Belong (“Do something with someone”), Commit (“Do something meaningful”), and develop skills and dispositions that reduce stress and promote resilience. Each can be enacted in a broad variety of ways that you design to fit your own style and comfort. Follow the links in the table for additional resources.

Teaching Academic Advising Mentoring
Act Embed active learning in courses

Include different types of activities and approaches to help students make meaning of content

Encourage involvement in clubs or projects

Help students plan intellectual, physical, spiritual, and/or social activities into their semester

Invite students to become involved in your scholarly work or research in different ways, beginning as early in their Elon experience as possible
Belong Frequently use assigned student groups or teams

Provide resources, instruction, and opportunities for reflection on supportive team behavior

Use structure for inclusive teaching and foster a class climate for learning

Strategize with students about how to establish/deepen connections to individuals and communities associated with their major(s), interests, or salient identity characteristics

Encourage consistent involvement in one or a few group organizations

Foster community among current, former, and potential future student researchers or scholars in your department or lab

Build intentional peer or near-peer mentoring structures among student researchers or scholars

Commit Prompt students to consider connections between their values and your content or activities

Include community-engaged or service learning

Model projects on real-world challenges

Discuss advisees’ values and life goals in relation to coursework or program selections

Support students to reflect upon the ways in which their current experiences help reshape or shed additional light on their values and goals

Understand what aspects of a research or scholarly project are of interest to a student and why

Help students see the personal value and societal or disciplinary relevance of your shared projects

Skills and Dispositions Discuss and provide resources for effective study skills, time management, and stress reduction (exercise, mindfulness, sleep, etc.)

Help students develop an awareness of their mindsets and beliefs about learning and about themselves, and how these beliefs influence their behavior

Encourage and facilitate students building of multi-dimensional mentor networks

Sometimes students get so caught up in the day-to-day to-do list that they don’t take time to celebrate their successes. (Don’t we all!) In smaller classes where students know each other fairly well, I take just a few moments at the beginning of class to ask students to share something they are proud of – a brag about themselves. These are related to academics, research, the life of the mind. I share as well. This focuses us on what we are accomplishing and achieving, rather than the hurdles we might encounter. It also helps us cheer for everyone else as we support them along the way – usually with applause.

-Laura Roselle, Political Science and Policy Studies

 

In my Introduction to Psychology course, I have students complete a low-stakes writing assignment focused on their values.  Part one of the assignment asks them to first consider how they want people to talk about them at their 100th birthday party. Then they are asked to think about what they want people to say about them when they retire, at their 25th birthday, and finally when they graduate college. I ask them to think about what their values are and how they plan to live a life in accordance with their values. The second step in the assignment asks them to track their behavior for 2 weeks, and then to compare their notes on what they want their life to be about in college vs. the things that they have done in the past 2 weeks. Finally, they write up a vision statement of sorts for how they plan to live the next 4 years in accordance with their values that encourages them to think of themselves as a whole person. My hope is that this will help them to make intentional choices that support their overall success and well-being as they chart their college career and beyond, with a focus not only on grade success but also on healthy and mindful living.

-CJ Fleming, Psychology

Help

When students experience mental health challenges, helping them begins with indirect approaches that signal your openness to a conversation. Direct intervention or support may follow, initiated by a student who felt safe approaching you, or by the faculty member who noticed concerns and reached out proactively. Practices for providing help and support within the faculty role are described below, with different ideas for both laying the groundwork with students to seek help and for and engaging during a student mental health crisis.

Laying the Groundwork: Normalizing Challenge and Encouraging Help-Seeking

Helping students manage mental health challenges begins long before a student shows signs of distress and can occur in a class or in one-on-one advising and mentoring relationships. On a syllabus, you might craft a mental health statement and include on-campus resources, both empowering with the knowledge to support themselves and one another and signaling that you care. In one-on-one conversations, you might keep resource materials for related campus services in plain view and ask advisees or mentees whether they’d like a copy to have on hand to support a friend in need. In both contexts, normalize and destigmatize challenge by occasionally sharing your own stories of struggle, failure, and resilience.

In the Moment: Supporting the Student in Crisis

Preparing to directly intervene or support a student in crisis is easiest and most effective before the conversation with the student begins. First, reflect on and identify the boundaries of your professional role and expertise as a faculty member. Even those of us who are trained to work with individuals experiencing a mental health crisis may not be best positioned to act as counselors for students whom we also teach, advise, and mentor in a variety of contexts.

Next, seek out training and information that will prepare you to recognize signs of distress and know how to intervene. For example, Elon University’s Counseling Services provides access to an evidence-based one-hour suicide prevention training, and departments or other units can request a workshop or Mental Health First Aid training. The Office of Leadership & Professional Development frequently offers programs such as Supporting Students in Crisis that can help prepare you to engage skillfully.

Finally, know the resources available on campus (described in the “Connect” section below). While referring to Counseling Services is ideal, be prepared to suggest multiple options for where a student might find support depending on their individual preferences. Rather than providing information and hoping the student in acute crisis will follow up, ask for permission to sit with the student while they call Counseling Services or another source of support. If the student is not ready to make such a call themselves, ask for permission to make the call on their behalf as they sit with you. Also ask for permission to walk with them to connect with the appropriate professional. If the student declines, respectfully ask for permission to follow up with them in the following 24-48 hours to see how they are doing, and how best to reach them. By respecting the student’s agency and control over their situation and encouraging them to seek additional support, we increase the likelihood of a positive outcome for each student and for our community as a whole.

Connect

Elon colleagues in a variety of offices and centers can help you strategize about ways to help students sustain positive mental wellness or provide professional support to students in crisis.

References

  • Abelson, S. (2019, October 29). 4 ways faculty can be allies for college student mental health. [Blog post] Retrieved from https://community.acue.org/blog/4-ways-faculty-can-be-allies-for-college-student-mental-health/
  • Arnsten, A. F. (2009). Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nature reviews neuroscience, 10(6), 410.
  • Burt, D. B., Zembar, M. J., & Niederehe, G. (1995). Depression and memory impairment: a meta-analysis of the association, its pattern, and specificity. Psychological bulletin, 117(2), 285.
  • Center for Collegiate Mental Health (2018). 2018 Annual Report. Retrieved from https://sites.psu.edu/ccmh/files/2019/09/2018-Annual-Report-9.27.19-FINAL.pdf
  • Eisenberg, D., Ketchen Lipson, S., Ceglarek, P., Philips, M., Zhou, S., Morigney, J., Talaski, A., Steverson, S., Fogel, S., & Inscore, A. The Healthy Minds Study: 2018-2019 Data Report. Retrieved from https://healthymindsnetwork.org/home/whats-new/.
  • Kertzman, S., Reznik, I., Hornik-Lurie, T., Weizman, A., Kotler, M., & Amital, D. (2010). Stroop performance in major depression: Selective attention impairment or psychomotor slowness? Journal of affective disorders, 122(1-2), 167-173.
  • Rodrigues, C. L., de Almeida Rocca, C. C., Serafim, A., dos Santos, B., & Asbahr, F. R. (2019). Impairment in planning tasks of children and adolescents with anxiety disorders. Psychiatry research, 274, 243-246.
  • Schwabe, L., & Wolf, O. T. (2010). Learning under stress impairs memory formation. Neurobiology of learning and memory, 93(2), 183-188.