This August, two major research reports focused on the need for mental health training on campus. One surveys college presidents, and the other surveys college students. What these reports have in common may surprise you.
What college presidents want
Mental health training on campus is a recurring theme in College Student Mental Health and Well-Being: A Survey of College Presidents, published in August by the American Council of Education. The report surveyed 400 college and university presidents on mental health:
• Compared to three years ago, 81 percent of presidents say student mental health on their campus has become more of a priority.
• Among presidents, virtually all (99 percent) said it is very important or moderately important for presidents to understand the issues related to college student mental health, but only 35 percent feel very knowledgeable.
• Only 30 percent of presidents said that yes, they have all the tools they need to address college student mental health concerns.
These responses represent a gap among mental health needs, current knowledge, and tools needed to close that gap. Digging deeper into what additional resources would be of value, the report cites that “over one-quarter of presidents said professional development and training for themselves or training directed at specific campus groups like faculty, staff, students, executive leaders, and board members” would be of value.
Additionally, 60 percent of presidents strongly agree that staff are spending more time addressing student mental health concerns compared to three years ago. And about half of that, 32 percent, strongly agree that faculty are spending more time. “We need training to be able to identify someone who may be experiencing a mental health episode or breakdown and strategies to assist that individual,” one president wrote.
In line with increased time demands of faculty and staff but notable lack of training, presidents were asked what their first action would be if they had unlimited resources to dedicate to student mental health. More than one in 10 presidents mentioned professional development for faculty and staff. “I would broaden the range of people who could help students by [providing] proper training rather than staffing up the counseling center,” one president said.
Among these college presidents, there is a consensus that more work is needed around a comprehensive mental health approach that targets everyone on campus. One president succinctly stated: “We can’t just solve this by hiring more counselors.”
Finally, it recommends that as student mental health concerns rise to the forefront, training everyone on campus to act when students are in distress is a powerful solution. “Some institutions are training faculty and staff to identify students who need help and give them the tools to make referrals to appropriate services,” the report concludes.
What college students want
Also in August, Barnes and Noble College Insights released a report, Mental Health and Well-Being on Campus: How we better care for the whole student, surveying 762 college students and 1,708 parents.
The report starts with the same premise: student mental health is a growing struggle. Twenty-four percent of students report that they are extremely or somewhat unhappy, and 76 percent say they have experienced mental health issues (stress, anxiety, depression). Many struggle to adopt healthy habits.
Students were asked: “How can universities better assist you with mental health/wellbeing?” Half responded with more flexibility with homework assignments. And 35 percent said having open conversations with professors about mental health. Yet only 10 percent cite talking with university faculty/advisers as a way to manage mental health issues currently.
This is some of the first research we’ve seen that suggests that students value their relationship with faculty as mentors and support for mental health. And, as suggested, there is a gap between the number of students who want this assistance and the number who are utilizing it.
Speaking of gaps, only 24 percent of students have used school resources for mental health. The report suggests that this could be because schools are overly reliant “on counseling services alone to provide support, when they should be offering additional options including university courses on adjusting to college, health and wellness programs, student-led support groups and more.”
The report concludes that “the role of post-secondary institutions is not limited to the classroom,” and thus that support should be available whenever, wherever students need it. “Universities must unite staff and faculty in adopting a holistic strategy that will foster success and well-being for their students.”
Evidence-based mental health training
What these two reports have in common is the role of faculty and staff as trusted campus resources who can provide students with additional mental health support.
Kognito’s CEO and co-founder Ron Goldman shared his thoughts in on this relationship in the Barnes and Noble report:
“Conversations play a critical role in building coping skills, social connectedness, and motivating those in need to seek help. While these conversations can be difficult, they are necessary. It is therefore critical that mental health initiatives at universities and colleges go beyond building awareness of the impact of psychological distress and begin to train and empower their faculty, staff, and students with the confidence and communication skills to seek help and effectively approach those in need to provide support and motivation to connect with available help.”
What can be done to bridge the gap between students wanting to talk with faculty and staff about their mental health, and the 10 percent of students who currently do so?
One solution that involves faculty and staff in a comprehensive mental health approach is evidence-based mental health training. Engaging faculty and staff in training can help them better realize the role they play on campus as a mental health gatekeeper. It can also prepare them with the skills to motivate a student to access more support.
Creating a mental health training program on campus
Building relationships between faculty and students and preparing faculty to serve in a gatekeeper role requires engaging them with the right knowledge and skills.
In Kognito’s whitepaper co-authored with JED, Are Campuses Ready to Support Students in Distress?, our survey results also support the need for a mental health training program on campus directed towards faculty and staff.
For example, among the 14,584 faculty and staff who were surveyed, 95 percent agreed that connecting students with mental health support services is part of their role.
However, a much smaller percentage, 34 percent, actually felt adequately prepared to approach students to discuss their concern. Less than half felt adequately prepared to recommend mental health support services.
In sum, our whitepaper came to the same conclusion as the American Council on Education and Barnes & Noble. Data suggest that faculty and staff agree it is part of their role to recognize, approach, and connect students in psychological distress to mental health support services. Yet they reported feeling that they did not have adequate knowledge and skills to provide this support.
What’s involved in engaging faculty and staff in mental health training on campus? The right solution can be simple, especially if you are looking to reach a large campus online. And to justify these resources, the benefits for higher education outweigh the costs.
A more engaged campus means that students know they have mental health support in more places. That network makes it more likely that an ally will help that student seek support when they really need it.