Addressing the Mental Health Needs of College Students


Addressing the Mental Health Needs of College Students

By: Tiffany Thompson, MSW, CSW

Bio: Tiffany Thompson earned an MSW from Spalding University, Louisville, Kentucky. She is a published author who is passionate about foster care, women’s rights, education, and social justice. Fond of volunteering, she is an educational support tutor for the “Everyone Reads” program.

Many social workers, other helping professionals, and faculty and staff in higher education have acknowledged the current mental health crisis among our nation’s college students. However, more needs to be done to provide comprehensive campus services and adequate faculty and staff training in this area.

On November 18, 2016, the “Lilly Conference Series on College and University Teaching and Learning” was held in Oxford, Ohio. At the conference, Dr. Pam Cartor and Dr. Pattie Dillon shared ten topics during their presentation titled, “Navigating Student Mental Health Issues in the Classroom”. These areas are as follows:

1. Greater incidents of psychological problems among student populations
2. Worry and Pressure
3. Specific Mental Health Disorders present in the classroom such as: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity
Disorder, Panic Disorder and Panic Attack, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Bipolar I Disorder, and Stress and Anxiety Disorders
4. What to do When an Approach is Warranted
5. Best Practices in Classroom Situations

The take-a-ways from Cartor and Dillon’s (2016) discussion are that faculty and staff in higher education are often-times inadequately prepared to look for signs and symptoms of mental disorders or to address those concerns appropriately in the classroom. They suggest the following best practices for assisting students with mental health concerns: 1) Have a discussion with the student, 2) Use empathy when attempting to de-escalate an incident, 3) Use cultural awareness to minimize personal one-sidedness and stereotypes, 4) Utilize campus resources such as counseling or behavioral health centers and assist students with points of contact, 5) Suggest that students take time outside the classroom to process their emotions until they feel ready to return, 6) If necessary, call the campus safety office or dial 911.

Discussions about addressing the mental health needs of college students have appeared in many publications this year including: USA Today, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Social Work Helper.

Sarah Sabatke (2016), in a USA Today article titled, “Mental health on college campuses: a look at the numbers” reports the following statistics:

• Every year, the Mizzou Student Suicide Prevention Coalition declared that approximately 1,100 college students commit suicide
• The Center for Disease control stated that suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth and young adults in the 15-34 age range
• The American College Health Association Spring Assessment 2015 noted that two-thirds of students do not look for mental health services
• National Data on Campus Suicide and Depression reported that one out of every 12 United States college students drafts a strategy to end their lives.
• The percentage of students that voiced a sense of isolation over the past 12 months was 60.5%
• The percentage of students that expressed a sense of desperation over the past 12 months was 49.5%

These sobering numbers indicate a need for evidence-based faculty and staff approaches to tackle the issue of mental health concerns among our college students.

Jennifer Howard (2015), in her article titled, “Faculty on the Front Lines”, proposed that most campuses utilize a first-response unit that steps in during crisis situations-suicidal ideations, an active shooter. Howard (2015) added that along with this resource, most universities provide training to prepare staff and faculty to recognize and interact with students who have psychological issues. She also pointed out that there are various types of training such as new employee acclimation where information about campus resources is shared and seminars are given on mental health topics. These approaches are typically employed at most American colleges and universities.

Julia Cardoso (2016), in her article titled, “Four Tips for Dealing with Mental Health Needs in College” , shared that universities are ramping up psychotherapy resources to deal with greater student demand. Additionally, Cardoso (2016) communicated that universities nationwide are developing initiatives aimed at expanding mental health awareness, decreasing shame, and eradicating suicides boosted by government endowments. She offers the following tips to help students better cope with campus life:

1. Research mental health services offered by the university
2. If you have a problem, speak up
3. Maintain relationships with the academic community
4. Take care of yourself by assembling a support system

She concludes by reminding students that these suggestions will assist them in obtaining school-life balance for their overall mental and physical wellbeing.

As an MSW working in higher education, I meet with students from a variety of backgrounds. Being prepared to meet student’s needs as a university community is one of our top priorities. For this reason, we offer two campus locations for students to receive mental health services: The Center for Behavioral Health and the Student Counseling Center. Students can make appointments to see a clinician by phone or email. They can also walk-in if someone is available. The services provided include: assessments, individual psychotherapy, group therapy, and couples or family counseling. Our campus also provides trainings throughout the year for faculty and staff.
On October 18, 2016, I attended a training session called “Autism in the Classroom”. During the training, we discussed the following topics:

• What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
• What Will It Look Like?
• Challenges
• Strengths
• How to Help

As a staff person who meets with a diverse student population, I found the tips under the “How to Help” section very helpful. The following techniques can be used by faculty and staff as appropriate.
• Honor boundaries and student’s amount of eye contact
• Permit the use of technology devices in the classroom
• Permit objects that student’s find soothing
• Permit flexibility in seating arrangements
• Suggest that student’s exit class, if they need to take a moment to process their emotions
• Use active listening and allow student(s) to propose options that work best for him or her
• Exercise patience

During National Suicide Prevention Week, November 7-11, 2016, our campus held the first “Bold Moves Against Suicide Summit”. Kelley Gannon (2016) shared that the goal of the effort was to assemble community leaders and foster partnerships to increase consciousness and impact suicide rates in the city of Louisville. Gannon (2016) also noted that as of November 2016, Louisville was classified as 8th for peak suicide rates when compared to 50 comparable cities.

Deona Hooper (2016), in an article titled, “Mental Health Matters but What Happens When You Are Waitlisted” remarked that leading studies indicate 1 out of 4 people live with a mental disorder. This means in the United States about 61.5 million people fall into this category. Furthermore, Hooper (2016) shared that recent studies reveal by 14 years the age, half of all severe mental disorders present signs and symptoms. By 24 years of age, three fourths of all severe mental disorders are evident. According to Hooper (2016), this data supports the clarion call for increased financial backing for campus mental health services. However, due to greater student demand, schools such as Ohio State University are pushing fund-raising efforts to supplement these services. She concludes that campus-based mental health centers deliver quality clinical assistance. Still, resources could be expanded via extra financial sponsorship.

The statistics cited in this article emphasize the need for evidence-based mental health programming, services, and faculty/staff trainings. As social workers who serve clients with a multiplicity of concerns, we must be mindful of our approach to college students and emerging adults with mental health issues. Many of these college students will be future social work professionals. Advocating for more funding of mental health services, best-practices in the classroom, decreasing stigma, and zero suicide strategies can set us on the path to success moving forward.

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