The most recent American Freshman Survey found that the emotional health of incoming freshmen is at its lowest point in at least three decades -- a finding that should be of concern to all of us in higher education. Similarly, according to the National Survey of College Counseling Centers, 94 percent of counseling and psychological services (CAPS) professionals report that “recent trends toward greater numbers of student with some psychological problems continue to be true on their campuses.”
What can be done to alter these dire statistics? To help students prepare to meet the increased psychological demands required in modern life, colleges must provide additional support -- and not only from counseling professionals but also undergraduate advisers and faculty members.
Just ask any counseling and psychological services professional in your college or university and he or she will tell you that your students are not well emotionally, psychologically and physically, and those most responsible for their well-being -- advisers and faculty members -- have not been provided with a way to look at and help solve the problem. As one vice president of student affairs at a Big Ten university declared recently, “CAPS is receiving higher incidences of anxiety and depression” with “more so than usual behavior issues, where needs continue to grow each year and there is a long, growing waiting list.” He concluded, “We are not going to find enough money to remedy the situation.”
This is a sad commentary that expresses the depth of resignation among college and university leaders that anything can be done to reverse such a troubling situation.
Institutional leaders, frontline advisers and faculty members have been led to believe that if college students do well academically -- and take advantage of internships and student activities or develop a scholarly relationship with a close faculty mentor -- then they will also be happy, healthy and flourishing in higher education and life. That is a false belief that we should not perpetuate.
Senior administrators need to view students, the academic advising relationship and the broader college experience through a new lens that focuses much more on students’ overall well-being and not just on academics and traditional extracurricular activities alone. Today’s faculty members and academic advisers are just not taught to think this way. They don’t have a way to look at the problem, nor do they have a definition of what constitutes “well-being” to guide their prevention and education programs.
Well-being is not simply the absence of mental or physical illness. Rather, it is the more positive connotation of how well your life is going. Well-being encompasses, among other things, emotional health, vitality and satisfaction, life direction and ability to make a difference, the quality of one’s relationships, and living a good life.
What is required in higher education today is a systematic process that helps students achieve their educational, career and personal goals by concentrating on areas of talent and engagement, dreams and passions. Such a student success strategy will stimulate and support students in their quest for an enriched quality of life. That will, in turn, result in higher student satisfaction, increased retention and graduation rates, and, at the most fundamental level, young adults who are fulfilled and psychologically healthy.
In fact, some institutions are already exploring some proven best practices that effectively infuse well-being approaches beyond counseling and psychological services into academic advising, curricula and career counseling.
For example, one university where I was both a dean and professor applied an approach that we called Self Across the Curriculum (SAC). We required all students at the beginning of a new 16-week course to discuss with their professor how the course could help them better understand their distinct purpose in life. Faculty members designed weekly lesson activities that allowed students to design real-world projects that allowed them to work, for example, on ways to stop bullying in middle schools. Students became engaged in their learning by being intrinsically motivated to use their talents and skills to deal with real problems. Further, they encouraged and moved each other by revealing their highest hopes and dreams for a better world where children and people treated each other with kindness and love.
Retention rates increased by 26 percent for the entire institution, with student satisfaction scores going up by almost 40 percent -- demonstrating that students feel empowered to persevere and are happier about who they are and their course work when they learn about themselves and see the tangible contributions they can make.
In addition, academic advisers at that same university then applied the scientifically based Integrated Self (iSelf) model, an assessment and intervention tool that links four functional areas that are crucial to student success: academic advising, career services, personal counseling and student engagement. This model measures multiple facets or attributes of psychological well-being, including: emotional and socioemotional intelligence; self-esteem, self-efficacy and self-understanding; personal identity and beliefs; and intrinsic motivation.
Through the iSelf model, the university offered a short, three-session workshop to help students understand their life purpose and dreams, then choose their academic program based upon that life purpose and those dreams, and then select a potential career path and internships that would manifest such expressions of themselves.
The result? The students in the class in general did whatever it took to remain in college and found new and creative ways to finance their education after taking the workshop. Further, they took it upon themselves to take ownership of their well-being and future direction -- resulting, for instance, in reduced levels of substance abuse that often accompanies anxiety and depression.
For example, one student who had limited financial means to even attend college expressed an interest in a “practical” career to satisfy her parents’ demands. As such, she was just going through the motions of attending classes and was not emotionally engaged in her expensive education. Through the workshop, she transformed her understanding of who she was and what she was meant to do with her life -- the distinct difference she could make.
She changed her academic major from Spanish to Social Policy and International Relations, and she then actively found and accepted an internship in Peru. She went on to empower inner-city people to make their communities and neighborhoods safer and cleaner and to improve their personal health by reducing obesity rates. Her self-esteem and confidence soared, giving rise to a dynamic personality that had lain dormant.
This university is just one example of how institutions can use new assessment and intervention tools to create a student-success model that is based on the latest research in the psychology of well-being and student-centered learning. The occasional seminar or mental health event, or worse, allowing CAPS to passively wait for students to voluntarily sign up for counseling, is simply not enough. Our colleges and universities need to actively offer educational prevention programs and to infuse the teaching of self-understanding and well-being throughout the curriculum.
At the very least, academic outcomes will go up. At best, we have happier, healthier, more productive young adults.