Student mental health is declining. According to the National College Health Assessment (NCHA), students are reporting increased stress and psychological distress levels. In 2023, over three-quarters of the students participating in the NCHA described their stress levels as moderate or higher. Additionally, the NCHA shows mental health diagnoses such as anxiety and depression are being reported by a higher percentage of students than before.
Understanding current data, however, is only part of the equation. How can students better understand their mental health? And how can educational institutions and instructors increase their own understanding to support students? How can they prioritize student mental health?
It all begins with awareness, said Dr. Matthew Glowiak, a clinical faculty member Southern New Hampshire University’s (SNHU) online clinical mental health counseling program.
“The more aware you are of yourself, you can tell when things are going wrong, can adjust accordingly and continue making improvements to your life,” said Glowiak. “But self-awareness is also important in terms of being able to relate to others. You can start to empathize a lot better, and I think that’s one of the important things that we miss a lot.”
In attempting to prioritize mental health, self-awareness should not be limited to only students, either. Faculty and staff should also practice self-awareness: “...recognize some of the challenges you have and also recognize that your students are going to be bringing some those to the table, as well,” Glowiak said.
In addition to awareness, Glowiak noted: “It really comes down to understanding what mental health is (and) seeing the value in the assistance that’s out there.
”Mental health is a state of mental well-being that allows people to cope with stressors they encounter and contribute to their communities by exercising their natural abilities, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). For students, that means mental health can have a tremendous impact on their academic success.
What Factors Contribute to a Student’s Mental Health?
Students face a variety of unique stressors: academic pressure, social commitments, financial concerns, and time constraints. Students must also contend with wider societal issues, such as social injustice, economic concerns, political strife, violence and war. “Being a student is difficult!” said Glowiak.
However, it is also important to consider that factors contributing to a student’s mental health may vary by student, based on academic environment and life experience. Students taking classes in person may experience different contributing factors than an online student. Dual enrollment students – high school students who are also enrolled in college courses – face unique challenges, as well. Age can also play an impactful role on the factors a student might face.
With so many complicating factors, Glowiak suggests tailoring an approach to each student, based on their own experiences.
“Let’s meet you where you’re at and try to cater to your strengths,” he said.
What Are the Consequences of Neglecting Student Mental Health?
Neglecting such an integral part of overall well-being can create a variety of negative consequences. Glowiak said these consequences can range in severity from poor academic performance to failing out of a program, from negative thoughts to suicidal ideation.
With the reported increase in stress levels, depression, anxiety and other mental health concerns, students also reported an increase in self-harm. Eleven percent of students surveyed by the NCHA “indicated they had intentionally cut, burned, bruised, or otherwise injured themselves within the last 12 months.”
Neglecting mental health can also affect physical health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) gives an example: “Depression increases the risk for many types of physical health problems, particularly long-lasting conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.” Other examples include, but are not limited to:
- Lack of sleep
- Gastrointestinal issues
What Role Should Colleges, Universities & Educators Play?
Preventative measures are key to mitigating mental health challenges students face. Glowiak said educational institutions should offer a variety of mental health resources, such as counseling, and allowing students to take mental health days.
For instructors, communication with students should also be a priority.
“Listening to the students (and) being responsive (is important),” said Glowiak. While instructors must be mindful of university policies and legal constraints, such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), instructors can still be encouraging and supportive.
Dr. Glowiak suggested instructors be mindful: mindful to check in with students and mindful with the language they use. Additionally, instructors should encourage students to communicate with them about the challenges they are facing.
What Strategies Can Students Implement to Manage Mental Health?
Practicing self-care can benefit students and their mental well-being. Navigating college can be time-consuming and stressful, and important elements such as sleep and nutrition can fall to the wayside. However, the CDC says, “Staying physically healthy can improve your emotional well-being.” Maintaining a healthy diet, being active, sleeping at least 7 hours, connecting with others, limiting alcohol intake, and taking time to unwind are just a few recommendations to improve well-being.
Additionally, educational institutions should promote the mental health resources available to students.
Students requiring immediate assistance can contact the following resources:
- 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline
- The National Sexual Assault Online Hotline
- National Domestic Violence Hotline
- The Trevor Project
- National Alliance of Mental Illness Help Line
- Veterans Crisis Line
Empowering Student Mental Health: Innovative Educators' Comprehensive Support Solutions
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