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Campus counseling centers throughout the country struggle to meet the mental health needs of college students, a majority of whom report anxiety and depression. Many colleges and universities now offer digital tools or peer counseling programs to help address an overwhelming demand for mental health services. And at some institutions, the classroom itself offers another setting in which students can improve their mental health. As explored in a recent Inside Higher Ed article, faculty members, who commonly encounter students in distress, often want to help those students. Yet they can often feel reluctant to either refer them to counseling centers with long wait lists or to assume a counselor role themselves.
Over the past five years, I’ve taught hundreds of students specific strategies to improve their mental health—within the context of a graded academic class. After reviewing the research about effective mental health interventions on college campuses, I noted that a key ingredient is supervised skills practice; that is, students must actually practice new emotional and behavioral skills several times, rather than just learning about them.
My “science and practice” psychology courses span four weeks (eight sessions or modules) and address topics related to well-being, mindfulness and compassion (including self-compassion). Each class includes evidence-based approaches to reduce the habit of harsh self-criticism and assigns specific techniques shown to improve well-being, such as cognitive reappraisal, behavioral activation and loving kindness meditation.
These classes normalize the work of regulating emotions, managing attention and building healthy habits as basic human endeavors, rather than as a sign that something’s wrong with you. They also infuse academic thinking into students’ emotional work. For instance, my students read a study comparing two effective interventions for depressed college students, and then they write about which approach they would prefer and why.
When I meet with individual patients for psychotherapy, I often suggest that they try new approaches. Even when patients agree, implementing a new behavior outside the therapy room may take months, or it might never happen. But when practicing new mental health strategies takes the form of a graded assignment, most students follow through consistently, and many of them describe meaningful changes over the span of the four-week course. Plus, I can reach many more people at once.
Students aren’t required to share any feelings or situations that they feel are too personal; rather, the assignments ask them to comment on some aspect of their inner experience. However, many students choose to share a great deal about their mental health challenges and to explain how their new cognitive, emotional and behavioral strategies have benefited them.
One student shared, “A day I remember that I realized that this practice was helping me was when I had thrown in a scrimmage and didn’t do as well as I hoped. I didn’t get stressed and upset, instead saying to a teammate, ‘It’s all good, man—at least I got tomorrow.’ It was a moment where I surprised myself.”
Another student wrote that after a period of depression and isolation, “I gradually opened my closed heart and started to socialize with my classmates and neighbors. This process made me gradually feel that my body and mind became healthier.” These and other students gave me permission to have quotes from their writing published anonymously. (I only requested their permission several weeks after the courses ended and the grades were final.)
My classes incorporate two types of discussion-post assignments: reading reflections and practice experiences. For reading reflections, students respond to a discussion prompt about their responses to research studies. For practice experiences, students share any aspect of their own lived experience trying a particular new mental or behavioral technique. My classes also require a three-page research review paper, in which students delve into the research literature to answer a specific question related to improving mental health, as well as a reflection paper that connects some facet of their own experience with one of the course readings. When it comes to grading, if students submit responses to the discussion prompts and other assignments that reflect the instructions, they receive full points, even if they write that they forgot to practice their new skills or that they encountered challenges.
Over the course of each four-week class, I provide individualized feedback and suggestions. For instance, if a student describes struggling to incorporate new skills into a daily schedule, I might suggest setting a phone alarm reminder or Outlook appointment. Other students might become frustrated when their new skills don’t work instantly, so I remind them that hundreds of research studies indicate benefits after several consecutive weeks of practice. Much of my feedback involves normalizing students’ difficult feelings and encouraging them as they practice new skills. I might write something like, “I admire how you’re attending to this inner work and practicing your new skills. I encourage you to keep practicing.”
When my students share mental health challenges, I write to them to see if they would like help connecting with other support services, and I provide information about 24-7 crisis hotlines that can be reached by text or phone. However, most of my students don’t indicate urgent crises but rather an interest in developing their own repertoire of skills and a greater sense of self-efficacy in managing challenging thoughts, emotions and behaviors.
Beyond the Counseling Center
Addressing mental health in the classroom doesn’t need to be confined to classes such as mine or Yale University’s “The Science of Well-Being,” which are led by psychologists. Skills-based programs to enhance well-being are often just as effective when paraprofessionals deliver them. Faculty members who are not psychologists can also support students’ mental health and well-being in the context of any course.
When the Resilience Lab at the University of Washington asked faculty members what they were already doing in the classroom to support well-being, many professors described integrating “micro-practices.” In my favorite example, lasting just a few seconds, a professor invited students to turn to a neighbor and wish them good luck right before the exam.
Quintin Cutts and his colleagues at the University of Glasgow noted that students often dropped out of introductory programming classes. His team found that test scores improved after faculty restructured the class to provide feedback that encouraged a growth mind-set and to require assignments directing students to try different ways to solve problems when they got stuck.
Institutions like the University of Texas have begun campuswide initiatives to build well-being within many learning environments. In the classroom, those might include offering a “mindfulness minute” to normalize distraction, recenter and bring attention back to the room by tuning in to the five senses; modeling a compassionate and growth-oriented perspective when sharing how to learn from mistakes and failures; and closing class on a positive note, such as asking students to share a related topic that they hope to explore further.
College counseling centers across the nation continue to offer vital support for students in crisis, as well as those who can benefit from psychotherapy, medication and referrals. Yet, at the same time, both students and college counselors describe a need for mental health services beyond the counseling center.
Teaching mental health skills in the classroom is not a panacea or a solution to the range of systemic stressors that impact students’ mental health, including racism, financial concerns and sexual violence. Overemphasizing skills training can reinforce the status quo and imply that individuals are solely responsible for their well-being, even in harmful circumstances. I don’t think it’s an either-or question of addressing systemic problems versus individual symptoms, but a both-and. Colleges and our broader culture must continue to reduce systemic stressors, and students also deserve access to evidence-based strategies to improve their mental health.
One student explained, “This course presented a doorway, an opening into something bigger, more obvious and essential than any other study, class or lesson I have encountered in school and beyond.” Another student wrote, “None of the homework felt like homework, but a type of mental health service.” In this era, when the demand for mental health services on campus often exceeds the supply, I’m glad for the opportunity to reach many students simultaneously, to normalize mental health challenges, and to train students to implement evidence-based practices to improve their well-being.