When you demonstrate positive mental health practices, you assure students that mental and emotional well-being is possible.

Modeling mental health for students


When you demonstrate positive mental health practices, you assure students that mental and emotional well-being is possible

Key points:

Student mental health is suffering. Mental health is being recognized as a key area of concern for young people, including on college campuses. Alarmingly, half of college students identify mental struggles as one of their top stressors. The pressure has led 40 percent of undergraduates to consider dropping out. Administrators must find ways to support students holistically. Neglecting mental health needs will have devastating results on your students today and alumni tomorrow.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time set aside to consider the importance of attending to emotional well-being. Mental health—and mental illness—is invisible. You can’t see an X-ray of anxiety or a biopsy of depression. This makes it easy to overlook—until there is a problem. Mental Health Awareness Month encourages us to be honest with ourselves and have conversations with one another about mental health. It is a strategic time for leaders in higher education to innovate and implement supports for emotional well-being. On-campus resources, such as counselors and support groups, are fundamental. However, our responses cannot be only programmatic, they must also be personal.

College is a foundation time, not only of acquiring knowledge, but also of establishing habits that will last for a lifetime. This is why some colleges require all students to take a financial literacy course, physical fitness credit, or a class in music appreciation. If we don’t establish positive patterns early in adulthood, it will only get harder to do so—if it ever happens at all. In addition to conveying concepts and competencies, faculty and staff in higher education also have an unparalleled opportunity to shape the character and habits of students. These life-rhythms cannot be learned exclusively through classroom content. They must be mirrored by the character of the faculty, staff, and administrators on campus. One of the biggest gifts we can give young adults is to model the traits they will need to thrive throughout their lives and careers.

Focus is freedom

There is one essential characteristic students need to see you practice: knowing your role. This trait is often phrased negatively as “practicing saying no.” However, that is an incomplete picture of a robust trait. When you accurately understand your role in an organization, you know what things are your responsibilities and what aren’t. You can be centered on the proper tasks, motivated by healthy priorities. An accurate picture of your role enables you to say an enthusiastic “yes!” to the things within your scope that support your organization. It also frees you to say a clear and cheerful, “no, thank you,” when things fall outside of what is appropriate for your sphere. When you are rooted in your values, focused on your institution’s mission, and appreciate your team, you can understand your role in context. You don’t need to be sidetracked by distractions. You can fully engage your responsibilities and achieve strong outcomes.

Balance, not burnout

Burnout is often preceded by the erroneous idea that everything rests on you. When you understand that you are one integral part of a dynamic system, you can support others without overextending yourself. Knowing your role frees you to depend on others and ask for help when you need it. Your focus enables your colleagues to better understand your role and work alongside you in the mission of your organization. In the end, knowing your role fuels you to achieve more because you devote your energy to the things you should, rather than getting bogged down by tasks outside your purview. Like athletes with a clearly defined playing field, you know where to aim your skill and collaboration.

A recent survey of college students listed work-life balance as a top career priority—beating out salary. Young people recognize that workaholism is not sustainable. It will sap their joy, deteriorate their mental health, cost their relationships, and sabotage their career longevity. Work-life balance is an outcome. Knowing your role is the trait that enables professionals to achieve that outcome. When you practice the ambition, humility, and joy of knowing your role, you are modeling for students a foundational mental health practice that will serve their emotional well-being for the entire arc of their career.

All of the worthwhile mental health programming on your campus will be undercut if there is a culture of performance at all costs. The beneficial conversations you have during Mental Health Awareness Month must be backed up by the lifestyles of leaders on campus year-round. When you demonstrate positive mental health practices, you assure students that mental and emotional well-being is possible and sustainable.

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