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Sitting together in the office, a young woman listens to a female counselor.

College leaders are looking for inclusive ways to support learners in higher education.

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A January survey of higher ed institution representatives by Risk Strategies found 89 percent of colleges and universities are prioritizing mental health coverage for students. As young people continue to report they struggle with mental health concerns, higher education leaders look for creative, accessible and inclusive ways to aid learners.

Regardless of institution type or size, college leaders are seeing similar issues among students—including interpersonal and family challenges, financial concerns, and academic stress—said Davida Haywood, vice president of student affairs at Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina in a Dec. 5 webinar hosted by TimelyCare. Many students, following the COVID-19 pandemic, are adjusting to a new normal and rethinking their purpose in life or contemplating their mortality, something many educators were not prepared to encounter.

Haywood and Michelle Batista, vice president of student services at Lake Tahoe Community College in California, shared five strategies to provide inclusion-focused care to students.

  1. Create safe spaces.

While the negative connotations around mental health care are diminishing, it is still critical to provide students with places where they can engage with one another about their challenges, Haywood shares.

At Johnson C. Smith, male students can find a community in a nearby barbershop, allowing them to discuss how they’re feeling openly.

Student groups can also facilitate tough conversations or be a space for like-minded individuals to connect over shared experiences. Lake Tahoe has an Active Minds student club on campus that meets consistently to share how mental health has impacted the members and their circles.

  1. Invest in culturally competent services.

Some students may be less inclined to seek help from their campus counseling center because of their cultural background or norms they grew up with. Culturally relevant mental health programming can empower underrepresented minority students, and having faculty and staff members on campus who are from similar backgrounds can also boost students’ confidence or promote help-seeking behaviors.

Not all campuses are able to perfectly reflect their students’ demographics, Batista noted, but partnering with a third-party telecounseling service with diverse staff can meet students’ desire for shared identity with their provider.

When attempting to attract students, marketing should also be intentionally crafted to reflect diverse learners, Batista says. Thinking about who is represented on a flier, social media post or blog entry can help practitioners advertise resources to the appropriate audience.

  1. Promote available resources.

A spring 2023 Student Voice survey from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse found one-third of students do not know where to find help if they or a friend are experiencing a mental health crisis.

Sometimes, faculty and staff are unsure of how to support students who are in a crisis or seeking support. The best way to make campus more inclusive is to make available resources visible and accessible—and to ensure stakeholders are able to refer those who need the resource to the appropriate place.

Leaders can reassure staff that they don’t have to know all the answers, only to know what’s available and how to share that reference, Batista.

Students are an essential piece in connecting learners to resources, as well. At Lake Tahoe, students are the No. 1 referral resource for one another, Batista says, often sharing with staff that they heard about services through a friend.

  1. Normalize help-seeking behaviors.

At historically Black colleges and universities, like Johnson C. Smith, mental health conversations happen in hushed tones or behind closed doors, Haywood says. Despite students experiencing similar issues, they are not used to sharing with one another, so making it clear that they’re not alone or unique in their struggles is key.

Each student group also has its own culture around mental health, Batista says, such as athletics, band or Greek life, so understanding how different groups talk about or approach mental health can be a first step for administrators.

Lake Tahoe added a resource button to the learning management system to make mental health resource information accessible for students and staff. Professors can also take a mini poll of students during class to gauge individuals’ well-being that day and demonstrate to students that everyone has bad days.

  1. Create positive programming for wellness.

Making mental health services or staff more welcoming can also fight the mental health stigma on campuses.

Johnson C. Smith hosts a football game each fall dedicated to mental health, highlighting resources and encouraging attendees to talk about the issues. During finals week, staff have hosted different stress break events, like a mocktail mixology course and midnight breakfast, to remind students to prioritize self-care.

What’s a creative tactic your institution has used to reduce stigma around wellness support? Share your idea.

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