The Mental Health of Commuter Students

Colleges must understand their distinct needs and consider creative ways to lend support, write Merav Fine Braun and Jenna Citron.

February 27, 2019
 
 
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Today’s college students are experiencing mental health issues at an unprecedented rate. More than one in every three college freshmen across the globe shows symptoms of a mental health disorder, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.

It’s no surprise, then, that college counseling programs are often unable to meet the demand for services. A 2015 report revealed the need for counseling is up 30 percent since 2009, and the average higher education institution has only one counselor for every 1,731 students.

While there’s no substitute for getting help from a trained mental health professional, every member of a college or university’s faculty can play a part in making sure all students are supported. At the City University of New York Hillel organizations, we’re addressing the needs of a distinct subset of the global campus population: the commuter student. Originally created to provide a sense of belonging and opportunities for students to develop their Jewish identity, Hillels are a home away from home for the 25,000 students the university serves in New York City.

In 2015, CUNY conducted a survey of students between the ages of 18 and 30 to ask them about their mental health. More than 18 percent of our students suffer from depression and 20 percent from anxiety. Among students between the ages of 18 and 25, a disturbing 9 percent reported having serious thoughts of suicide in the last year.

When a person has to travel up to 90 minutes just to get to campus, they tend to feel like they’re constantly moving and never grounded. They also sometimes feel torn between their parents’ rules and the independence they’re trying to establish as young adults. They may come from traditional homes with specific expectations, such as forgoing a college degree in order to make money to support an extended family.

We are not here simply to give answers to the students who enter our doors every day. Instead we ask questions, we listen and we connect our students to the services they need. Sharing what we do may help other campus organizations rethink their approach to this ever-increasing challenge.

One issue we often see is that commuter students find themselves maintaining two identities -- they’re essentially caught between childhood and adulthood. Part of the college experience is about socialization and figuring out who you are as an independent person. But how can a student explore a different worldview -- whether it’s religion, politics or sexual orientation -- when they can’t discuss it at home?

We’ve had students whose parents threaten to kick them out of the house if they don’t commit to taking over the family business. Another young man continued to disappoint his parents every time he refused to put getting married ahead of earning a degree. Discussion and support groups that encourage respectful disagreement are immensely important to our students. We find that giving students a space to grapple with such issues gives them an outlet they don’t have anywhere else. Ultimately, we encourage and help them find ways to talk to their parents about their experiences. Not going home is not an option, and it is exhausting being what we call a 50-50 person.

In addition to feeling torn between two worlds, commuters often suffer from other people’s common misperception that they don’t want to be involved in campus activities. On a basic level, just because a student is a commuter doesn’t mean their classes always line up perfectly with the rest of their life. A commuter has required courses like any other student, and that might mean big gaps of time between.

Thus, it helps to provide a warm, welcoming place for those students who might otherwise be limited to taking a nap in the library or staring at their social media accounts in the cafeteria. Everyone needs human connection. Residential schools build smaller communities that facilitate friendship. Higher education institutions with commuters may need to create similar intentional friend-making spaces. At Hillel, students can get involved in our programming, socialize with friends or perhaps even apply for a fellowship or volunteer for a service project.

Another important way we support commuter students is by offering career and financial advice. Many students are coming from families that don’t have extensive professional networks. Our students are looking to gain real-life experiences and to create their own networking opportunities.

Once a week, we bring in a career counselor to help students with writing résumés, interviewing, choosing a career, finding a mentor and many other aspects of life beyond the institution. We also connect students to outside internships and part-time job opportunities as well as scholarships. We partner with outside organizations, such as the Jewish Foundation for the Education of Women, to develop scholarships that meet the needs of our students. In fact, the “Opportunities” pages on our websites drive more traffic than any other.

We also help our students who face financial pressures by connecting them with programs offering paid fellowships and internships. An example is the Jewish Learning Fellowship program, a 10-week conversational seminar hosted by Hillel that allows students to explore life’s big questions. On our campuses alone, we expect 165 students to take part in this paid fellowship program in the current school year.

The pressure today’s young people face and the unprecedented demand for counseling services on college campuses are definitely cause for concern. We at Hillel are grateful to be part of the village that helps students navigate and make the most of their college experience. We urge institutions of all shapes and sizes to understand the distinct mental health needs of their commuter students and to consider creative ways to reach out to them and lend support. Together, we can continue to search for solutions.

Bio

Merav Fine Braun is the executive director of Hunter College Hillel. Jenna Citron is the executive director of Queens College Hillel.

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