The question remains: Do students know about and can they easily access student mental health resources on campus?

4 ways higher-ed can improve student mental health support

The question remains: Do students know about and can they easily access university mental health resources?

Key points:

While interviewing for the Chief Online Learning Officer role in the Office of the Provost at Texas A&M University, I told a room full of deans that there would be a day when the students drive the change they want to see with digital and online learning. And when that day comes, we ought to be in a position to operationalize that change. That was in October 2018.

Almost four years to the day later, the Student Body President and Vice President for Academic Affairs approached me with an idea — adding a clickable feature dedicated to student mental health resources into Canvas LMS at Texas A&M.

Mental health was not in my scope. How was I going to navigate what I peripherally knew was a table well set of other student-focused units to operationalize the students’ ask? To their credit, they found the endpoint in me, as my role was to steward the faculty and student experience in the enterprise digital learning environment. “If you want this to be your legacy under your administration,” I told them, “we need this ready to go by mid-February.” I did not expect to hear from the students again.

On Monday, February 13, 2023, Texas A&M University launched a mental health button in Canvas. For the remainder of the Spring 2023 semester, the button received over 20,000 unique student clicks. Most notable was that 13-15 percent of the clicks at any given time increment were from within academic content in the learning management system. This means that students are reviewing the gradebook, completing a course assignment, or engaging with module content and bouncing to the mental health button on the global navigation of Canvas LMS.

That statistic is the precise reason Case Harris and Ellie Richter used to justify their ask of me: Canvas is where we spend all of our time; we need mental health resources integrated into this platform.

Instructure’s 2023 State of Student Success and Engagement in Higher Education report highlights mental health as one of the top six global trends students, administrators, and faculty identified as most important to student success and engagement in 2023. While the report cites that 47 percent of institutions globally provide some mental health resources through an LMS and 41 percent connect students to in-person and virtual counseling, the question remains if students know about and can easily access these resources that universities are investing in.

At Texas A&M University, students are advocating for mental health resources on behalf of themselves and their fellow Aggies. Furthermore, what we see with Gen Z, possibly for the first time ever in a generation, with respect to mental health, is an advocacy that is working in service to de-stigmatize mental health. We are all benefitting from their relentless efforts. 

As other institutions seek to iterate off Texas A&M University’s mental health button in Canvas LMS, there are four transferable characteristics to launching digital mental health resources that integrate into an institution’s digital learning environment.

Start with students

I often hear from university administrators that student leadership is too difficult to engage given the cyclical nature of student government or even the academic year. However, when you commit to making yourself directly available to students and open to their ideas, students will seek you out. Remove access barriers and meet students where they are – on text, in DMs, and for dinner. Additionally, know that students have a savvy for succession planning. To work with one student government administration is often to execute the ideas of their predecessors. Student mental health resources will only endure if students are involved.

Bring students along in the governance process

A commitment to shared governance is among the most enduring skills that a student enters into today’s workforce with. At the same time, mental health boasts a complexity that necessitates shared governance. By engaging student voices in this shared governance process, not only will mental health interventions on campus improve, but so too will students’ acumen for building consensus.

Additionally, student involvement via task forces and committees provides a powerful counter-voice where there may be resistance to leveraging technology from university administrators or faculty. Over time, the vignettes that students offer are powerful tools as you broker conversations with other university stakeholders who may hold different experiences with the digital learning environment.

Keep it fresh

Like any student-facing resource, if it does not change and evolve over time, students will stop using it. The mental health button at Texas A&M was designed to have a dedicated space to advertise campus events related to student mental health. The design intent of the button allows for flexibility and adaptation over time, thereby continually engaging students as mental health campaigns inevitably mature and evolve.  

Faculty should champion mental health interventions

There is no more important front-line worker in the student mental health crisis than faculty. The unique student-professor relationship often allows faculty to detect early signs of struggle. Given the demands placed on faculty today, ensuring they know these resources exist and how to leverage them as part of the larger mental health support model is critical. And where faculty may not leverage these resources in their communication and engagement with students, a visible and accessible mental health button integrated into the LMS safeguards equity for students.

When I stood on Haley Concourse with the student body president on the day that Auburn University launched its mental health button in Canvas, some eight months following the launch at Texas A&M University, the impact was tangible. A student-led idea to impact one of the largest student bodies in the country gained wings with another student body via the SEC network. On that fall day at Auburn University, digital mental health resources took flight to impact more than 100,000 university students across the SEC.

As someone who went to college in the early 2000s, when there were not any dedicated mental health resources on my campus, I couldn’t be more proud of the students I have had to privilege to work alongside who took a simple idea and advocated for it at a scale of impact that has no bounds.      

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