Struggling students are more likely to talk to a friend first, and leveraging the power of a peer community is invaluable when it comes to student mental health

Helping students fight the mental health stigma

Struggling students are more likely to talk to a friend first, and leveraging the power of a peer community is invaluable when it comes to student mental health

Universities are increasingly recognizing the student mental health crisis in higher ed. High rates of suicide – the No. 2 cause of death among college students, according to the nonprofit Active Minds – show only a small snapshot of how many students are suffering, many of them silently. Thirty-nine percent endure a significant mental health issue of some kind during college, but many never speak to a professional.

In response, universities are hiring more counselors, getting the word out about on-campus resources, teaching students meditation and yoga as stress relievers, highlighting hotlines that are available 24/7, and finding other ways to address the concern.

Related content: How investing in campus mental health pays off

All of these are essential components of a comprehensive strategy. One aspect that doesn’t get much attention, however, is the potential for a peer community that can reduce the stigma of getting help.

A friend in need

One theme that emerged from a recent survey of nearly 10,000 U.S. students by Active Minds and The National Society of Collegiate Scholars (NSCS) is that friends are a go-to resource for students with mental health challenges. Sixty-seven percent of students who are feeling suicidal talk to a friend about it before telling anyone else. What can universities do to make sure that when this conversation happens, students are ready to respond in a healthy way?

Many universities are exploring official channels for peer support to supplement professional treatment options. For example, at The George Washington University, peer support groups incorporate certified peer educators who engage with their classmates via events and workshops. At Washington University in St. Louis, students can speak with peer counselors who have completed more than 100 hours of focused training.

Facilitating the peer-to-peer connection

Another method of encouraging students to help one another is to increase awareness of mental health support – and fight the stigma of needing help – through on-campus organizations.

Programs like Active Minds, a nonprofit geared toward changing the conversation on mental health, are one way to target the problem. Active Minds is present on more than 600 college and high school campuses, empowering students to find creative ways to decrease the stigma. Their network organizes more than 3,600 annual events in support of this cause. Local chapters arrange activities such as:
• Hosting speaker presentations, panel discussions, and stress-relief activities
• Serving as a voice for on-campus changes that support student mental health
• Partnering with campus government and clinics to improve awareness of resources

NSCS, an honor society for high-achieving college students, partners with Active Minds to give back to the community and raise awareness about student mental health. The organization has active chapters on 320+ college campuses and encourages students to step into leadership positions to make a bigger impact. Through all of its activities, NSCS makes it easy for students to link up with like-minded peers and develop a true community – an important element to combat loneliness and improve well-being.

Thinking bigger

Mental health troubles are common in high achievers – 91 percent of students in the Active Minds and NSCS survey reported feeling overwhelmed by all they had to accomplish in the previous year – and it is a problem that reaches across all corners of campus.

When developing initiatives to create the kind of campus community where students feel they can speak up when in need of help, remember to engage the whole spectrum of campus organizations. Fraternities and sororities, student government, community service groups, and every other kind of on-campus group can and should be part of the solution. Because data shows that students so often turn to their peers in crisis, efforts should not be limited to organizations that focus solely on student mental health awareness.

Think critically about whether on-campus organizations are getting the support from the administration that they need to truly thrive. Ways to support organizations include:
• Offering a faculty or staff adviser to help navigate campus policies and provide a new perspective
• Connecting student leaders with those of other organizations so they can exchange best practices, such as by hosting a mixer or setting up mentoring relationships
• Creating an FAQ or web portal to simplify the process of communicating policies for marketing, reserving facilities, etc.
• Encouraging organizations to collaborate on community projects, particularly for student mental health awareness, rather than operate in silos

The most active and successful on-campus organizations will have insights that could help fledgling groups expand, so find innovative ways to support cross-pollination. Consider whether mini-workshops for improving marketing and engagement could provide long-term effects in nurturing a sense of community that is beneficial for students.

Improving well-being through connection and community

The whole-campus approach means getting the message to the students who need help as well as to those who will be providing support. This kind of assistance takes many forms:
• Validating a peer’s experience and listening without judgment
• Sharing personal experiences, as appropriate, with getting treatment
• Offering to help set up an appointment and walk the peer to the campus clinic
• Serving as a role model by becoming a leader in campus organizations

Colleges and universities nationwide are taking multifaceted approaches to combat student mental health issues, finding new ways to address a growing problem. When thinking creatively about how to reduce the stigma of mental health treatment, we should keep in mind the crucial impact of an informed and genuine student community. Student groups, along with residential programs, Greek life, and various other organizations, can help meet this need with the support of administrations.

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