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Faceless professional psychologist taking notes on clipboard while counseling woman on couch in office

To boost student mental health without adding more counselors, institutions should consider these four strategies.

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One of the greatest challenges for administrators in supporting college students’ mental health is identifying effective programs that can service large populations. Many counseling centers cannot accommodate all students with one-on-one counseling, and some students who need services don’t want one-on-one counseling. A spring 2023 Student Voice survey by Inside Higher Ed, conducted by College Pulse, found that among the 16 percent of students rating their mental health as poor, 49 percent had not used their college’s mental health resources.

So how do institutional leaders bridge the gap?

In a May 29 webinar hosted by the American Council on Education, campus leaders from Boston University and Texas Christian University shared four evidence-based practices colleges and universities can adopt that don’t require additional personnel.

Focus on mindfulness. “If you can do mindfulness-based programming and teach that to students, that will improve every aspect of mental health—ADHD, anxiety, depression, stress, positive mood, addictive behaviors,” said Ryan Patel, a psychiatrist and chair of the research committee at The Ohio State University’s counseling office.

Digital mental health interventions, such as Headspace and Calm, can be one way to integrate this into campus life, Patel said.

Mindfulness interventions can also be taught by faculty members or course instructors in the classroom, including the first-year seminar.

The Student Voice survey found 36 percent of students want to practice mindfulness more often, as well.

Build out services for students with high need. Nationally, half of college counseling centers only can serve around 20 percent of students who seek care, and a large number of those who are not served have high mental health needs that exceed the capabilities of short-term counseling, said Eric Wood, director of counseling and mental health at Texas Christian University.

When that happens, often students are referred off campus, and they may or may not get care, either due to transportation or cost or other barriers.

“But 100 percent, they’re still on campus, and they’re still in class. They’re still in the res halls. So eventually, even if they don’t get treatment, somebody gets worried about them, brings them to the counseling center,” Wood said, and it creates a cycle.

Rather than referring students off campus, now TCU partners with outside treatment centers who work with students to meet them on campus, using TCU facilities. This creates access to the high-level care students need, and TCU helps fund any copay costs not covered by insurance through an endowed fund. The overall costs still are less than hiring additional staff, Wood said.

At present, TCU has five intensive outpatient programs that work with students, and the counseling center has seen a ripple effect on staff’s capacity, with fewer after-hour calls coming in and less transport to hospitals.

Create student support groups. Peer support groups can also address staff capacity by reducing the number of students who seek help after completing their initial counseling program.

TCU used a model of recovery support groups to start, but expanded it for students with depression or anxiety. Now, when a student comes in and shows signs of depression, they can join a peer-led support community specific to their needs, called Renew.

The university also offers peer support groups for students of color, students with food or body issues, students who have experienced sexual or relationship harm, graduate students, housing and residence life student staff, and those in recovery.

Implement partnerships for sub-clinical needs. Some students seek out counseling services for concerns that aren’t clinical in nature, such as homesickness or time management. Rather than sending them to the counseling staff, partnerships with other campus groups that can better address these concerns can help. Student success coaches, academic advisers or peer mentors can be better resources.

“What we find is that having this formal connection with other offices and the mindset that these other offices are better … at helping students, when students get that narrative, it does increase capacity,” Wood said.

At Ohio State, the wellness center partners with faculty members for a “Don’t Cancel That Class” initiative, offering short presentations during class periods where the faculty member is otherwise occupied. Topics range from time management, stress management, depression or anxiety.

Ohio State also has a partnership with peer-based coaching to refer students who may benefit from goal-directed coaching versus clinical counseling, and peer mentors also refer students to the counseling center, when needed, Patel said.

Providing training to students and staff about mental health is one way to equip campus stakeholders who care about mental health issues to better understand and address the issues, as well.  

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

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