By Macaela Mackenzie
Minding students’ mental health is just as important as implementing positive programs for physical health on campus. “If we don’t take care of our mental health, we may not be able to reach our goals, maintain good relationships, and function well in day-to-day situations,” says Dr. Chrissy Salley, a psychologist in New York who works with students of all ages. For students, class expectations, new living situations, and navigating newfound independence can take a toll on their mental health and well-being.
Administrators, parents, and student supporters have the chance to play an important role in helping students access mental health services, both as a preventive measure and as a way to treat any issues students are facing.
Therapy is backed by a compelling arsenal of research
A study of college students who received therapeutic treatment for depression had outcomes nearly 90 percent better than those of control groups, according to a 2015 analysis of studies published in Depression and Anxiety. And the science-backed benefits extend beyond treating depression. There’s strong evidence that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help students better handle a variety of mental health issues and stressors, according to an analysis of more than 200 studies (Cognitive Therapy and Research, 2012). The researchers found that CBT helped those struggling with anxiety, anger issues, stress, bulimia, and other mental health issues.
Even though talking about mental health is becoming less stigmatized, taking steps to engage in a therapeutic process can still be confusing and intimidating for students. Here are five strategies for supporting students’ mental health.
1 Normalize therapy
Surveys show it’s not out of the ordinary to see a therapist—55 percent of college student respondents say they’ve used campus counseling services, according to a 2012 report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Few people look forward to therapy, but students should be aware that therapy exists to help them, not to judge them,” says Zachary Alti, LMSW, a psychotherapist and professor at the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service in New York. Support students by helping to reduce stigma surrounding mental health services. “I’d encourage students to keep an open mind and try it,” says Dr. Salley.
2 Make mental health just as important as physical health on campus
“Therapy is like physical exercise,” says Alti. Strive to promote counseling services on campus to benefit students’ mental health in the same way you may already be promoting healthy meal options and physical activity to benefit their physical health.
3 Meet students where they are
In college, students are navigating major life changes and setting significant goals—that needs to be addressed from a mental health perspective, according to the experts. “Therapy can be useful by helping people acquire a better understanding of themselves and develop healthy habits,” says Dr. Salley. Remember that “even positive changes can be stressful,” she says. “Having someone to talk to can be helpful, especially as you encounter new situations and people.”
4 Guide students to resources on campus and off
One of the biggest barriers for students can be figuring out where to start. Make information about counseling services offered on campus readily available and widely publicized—including exactly how to schedule a visit with an on-campus counselor, how to access off-campus mental health services, and what mental health services are covered by student insurance.
For students preferring to go off campus, provide resources to help them find local providers; for example, campus-recommended therapists in your area or a search tool on your school’s counseling website.
5 Reinforce confidentiality
Whether seeking mental health services on campus or off, students may be worried that what they share with a counselor might get back to their advisor or RA. “A therapist isn’t allowed to do this unless the student poses a threat to themselves or others,” says Alti. Because “a therapist’s effectiveness is dependent on maintaining trust,” it’s important to make it clear to students that their information and privacy will be protected.