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A student sits on stairs next to a backpack, looking frustrated and sad.

When students need mental health support, they turn first to their peers, family or social media.

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Young people in the U.S. are reporting higher levels of anxiety, depression and general mental health concerns than ever before. But who is helping college students when they’re in distress? According to students, it’s not mental health providers.

Recent surveys of college students find, despite high numbers of students experiencing mental health concerns, less than half are receiving mental health support from their college or university.

Students say: The most recent Healthy Minds Survey found 78 percent of students strongly agree, agree or somewhat agree that they currently need help for emotional or mental health problems for feeling sad, blue, anxious or nervous.

A November survey from Wiley found 83 percent of students turn to family and friends to help them cope with their mental health, on par with the results of the 2023 Thriving College Student Survey, which found 90 percent of students turn to their friends for information about mental health and 77 percent ask their parents.

Increasingly, students are looking to social media and other online resources for mental health information. The Thriving College Student Survey found 83 percent of students utilize the internet and 67 percent use social media. Wiley’s study found 24 percent use social media sites and blogs for support, this was more common with students taking fully online courses (38 percent).

Only 14 percent of students use college health services when they need help, according to Wiley’s data. Around half of Thriving College Student respondents said they used university professors or counselors for information on mental health, but 8 percent used them “all the time” or “often.”

A spring 2023 Student Voice survey by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse found 63 percent of students had not used any college mental health resources, while one-third had used on-campus counseling or telecounseling. Two-thirds of students strongly or somewhat agree that they know where to seek help on campus if they or a friend are experiencing a mental health crisis.

In the Healthy Minds survey, 19 percent of students reported one of the reasons they have not received services for mental or emotional health is because they prefer to deal with issues on their own or with support from friends and family. This was the same response rate as students who say they do not have enough time (19 percent), while 14 percent say they are not sure where to go.

So what: Understanding student behaviors and preferences can help college leaders identify where to add resources and supports.

  • Invest in peer supports. Students overwhelmingly trust their friends more and see them as a more accessible resource. Colleges can direct resources toward peer support systems and train students to respond to mental health challenges to meet this need.
  • Identify hybrid resources. With more students taking courses online and students looking for help online, colleges and universities should diversify their services to accommodate students off campus. Telecounseling or on-demand resources can be one method of this.
  • Boost awareness of existing services. Increased visibility into already in-place resources can help students engage in help-seeking behaviors when they are in crisis. Promoting resources on social media or creating awareness campaigns can help.
  • Work alongside faculty. In separate studies, faculty and staff members are saying it’s falling on them to talk with students about on-campus resources and manage students in distress. Partnering across campus to provide a unified message about student mental health and where they can receive help can benefit all stakeholders.
  • Introduce students to mental health practitioners. One of the reasons students may not turn to on-campus services is because they are unfamiliar with staff. Offering drop-in counseling sessions or embedding counselors into different campus departments can help build student confidence when they need help.
  • Solicit student feedback. Each campus, in best serving its unique student population, should open up conversations with learners to understand what is working or what could be improved.

Do you have a wellness tip that might help others encourage student success? Tell us about it.

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