A study conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness on college students and mental health found that 64% of surveyed students no longer attend college because of a mental health related reason. Additionally, 50% of the students did not utilize mental health services provided by the college. Students are apt to believe, correctly or incorrectly, that a stigma is associated with mental health issues and are thus less likely to open up about their struggles. One student respondent said “I was concerned that the information would become part of a permanent record that could be viewed negatively… the benefits of disclosing [a mental health issue to the college] do not outweigh the risks.”
Universities thus have an obligation to ensure students are both aware of resources that exist on campus and that there are no negative consequences for disclosing troubles they may be facing. The NAMI study provided the following recommendations for reducing students’ consternation with accessing mental health services:
- “Provide information to the campus community on how common mental health conditions are…” – Shining a light on just how pervasive mental health conditions are goes a long way towards reforming public opinion on receiving help.
- “Spotlight students, faculty and staff who have achieved success living with a mental health condition…” – Using actual cases with real people puts a face to an issue that may seem obscure and hard to comprehend. A student that knows they are not alone is more likely to seek help.
- “Treat mental health conditions with the same importance as other physical health conditions and integrate services and supports.” – Aligning “traditional” health services with mental health services takes a step towards the idea that physical and mental health are aligned and equally as important.
After taking the steps to ensure students are well aware of the student assistance program resources available to them and the open arms with which they are welcome, universities should take stock of the services they do offer to ensure they align with the students’ needs. Over 50% of the respondents in the NAMI survey indicated four support systems as being critical to their success:
- Walk-in health center
- Individual counseling
- Crisis services
- 24-hour hotline
Providing the services that students themselves identify as most important is possibly the most impactful decision a university can make. When students know that they have the support system behind them that they are most comfortable with, they are much more likely to be open and direct about their problems and seek help.
Universities have started to notice these trends in student mental health and have begun developing and implementing new programs. For instance, the University of Pennsylvania is considering starting a program that would provide incoming freshmen with an advisor who could help the students find the best mental health services for them. This particular program came about as collaboration between university officials and a group of students concerned with the state of mental health services at Penn. The program would seek to break down the perceived barrier between student and university by introducing a trusted intermediary.
Re-hauling existing mental health services that no longer meet the needs of modern students can be a daunting undertaking for a university. Consider partnering with a proven provider of student assistance services that can be customized to the needs of a diverse student body. Keeping in mind the attributes of services students requested most – immediate access, anonymity, around the clock support – look for partners that can offer a wide variety of options to students, because no two people are the same. Some students may feel comfortable talking on the phone while others may like an in-person meeting. A student assistance program should be flexible enough that it can support a wide array of needs.