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When Jed Satow died by suicide in 1998, he was just a sophomore at the University of Arizona. The Jed Foundation, where I serve as executive director and CEO, was formed shortly after to address the growing challenge of college students across the nation struggling with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.
As the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts and brings significant stress to everyone’s day-to-day lives, it may also exacerbate existing mental health conditions among young people, many of whom have had to scramble to return home or find housing after sudden campus closings that require adapting quickly to distance learning technologies and settings. This is a tough transition for students. However, the ways that members of college communities support each other during this time can help protect the mental health of young people, helping to reduce risks for suicide.
Loneliness and isolation -- which can be heightened during this period of mandated physical distancing -- are significant risk factors for mental health challenges and/or suicidal behavior. Research shows that supportive relationships and feelings of connectedness to fellow students, family, friends, faculty members and mentors are protective factors that can help lower the risk for suicide and promote emotional well-being.
Through our JED Campus program, we have worked with more than 300 colleges and universities, representing over three million students, to help them implement an evidence-based Comprehensive Approach to Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention. This approach can play an instrumental role in creating a culture of caring and a mental health safety net around students. It focuses first upon establishing student mental health as a campuswide priority and implementing an interdisciplinary leadership team that includes students, faculty members and administrators. This team oversees the development and management of a comprehensive strategic plan for supporting student mental health and reducing risks for substance misuse and suicide.
This comprehensive plan focuses upon strengthening protective factors for student mental health such as developing student life skills and resilience, fostering connectedness and belonging, and promoting help-seeking behaviors. It also involves leveraging and creating opportunities to notice when a student might be struggling and ensuring mental health policies and treatment services are comprehensive and well understood. Last, it includes making sure that procedures for handling a crisis are in place and that campus environments are as safe as possible by reducing access to potentially lethal means of suicide.
Now that more students have been engaged remotely -- and will continue to be throughout any summer courses and perhaps even well into the fall at various institutions -- it is important to deploy additional ways to implement a comprehensive approach during this period. We recommend that colleges and universities work to:
Support the development of life skills. We have all needed to adapt to new circumstances in our daily lives because of the COVID-19 outbreak. That includes everything from commerce to our careers, but we can still support teens and young adults in managing friendships and relationships, problem solving, decision making, and identifying and managing emotions in this new paradigm. You should emphasize that students are not alone and provide guidance and mentorship for anything in your realm of expertise: study skills, time management or handling anxiety related to new digital learning and communication formats. Faculty members can create virtual drop-in opportunities during the week for students to discuss problems or concerns around coursework, study, academic or other challenges.
Promote social connectedness. The need to remain physically distant doesn’t have to mean a loss of social contact. Encourage the teens and young adults to nurture their friendships and remain in communication with their classmates. Some avenues for strengthening social connectedness might include online study groups or online study/accountability partners. Students might be able to stay engaged with extracurricular clubs and affinity groups online, as well as participate in college-sponsored online social activities. Faculty mentors may also be available to support students virtually.
Identify students at risk. Colleges must to be poised to identify students at risk for mental health problems and/or suicidal behavior, as well as to promote emotional health awareness among those people who interact with students most frequently, from faculty members to other students. When communicating with students via phone, email, text or on social media platforms, faculty members and administrators can employ principles of active listening. If a student expresses a concern, try to listen carefully at three levels: the content of what they are saying, the emotions they are feeling and their behaviors in response to those thoughts and feelings.
Ensure that faculty members and students know where to refer students or whom to contact if a student expresses thoughts or behaviors that are concerning or worrisome. In addition, colleges can offer tips and suggestions to parents and families for how they can recognize if their children are struggling and best offer support.
Increase help-seeking behaviors. Students who need help but are reluctant or unsure of how to get it may find it even more difficult now to reach out and access care. In this new environment, counseling centers can open a virtual discussion group, specifically for students to talk about what's going on and how they feel.
College professionals can also monitor and respond to some of the posts students share on social media pages. If you decide to do this, let your presence be known on social platforms, but allow students to form connections with each other. That will enable students to crowdsource questions that you and other administrators or faculty members may not be able to answer yourselves.
If you are concerned for a student, ask in a private message, “Are you OK?” Identify a specific reason why the question is being asked, such as, “You seem quieter than usual.” Know where to refer students for support or other resources, and help make sure that students are aware of the crisis-support call and text services that may be available through your campus as well the national free service, Crisis Text Line, which can be reached at 741-741.
We know that JED’s comprehensive approach works. Taking a wide-ranging systems approach to mental health creates a protective environment for students who may be struggling with mental health challenges. Through JED Campus, more colleges have implemented campaigns to promote help-seeking behavior, especially initiatives led by students. More institutions are also offering training and educational programs for faculty, staff and students to help them learn how to identify students who may be struggling and to know how to reach out directly and refer them to counseling services when needed.
College professionals can take several actions to adapt this work remotely as we all comply with the physical distancing required to slow the spread of COVID-19. Mental health is everybody’s business, especially now as we all adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.
For more tips on supporting students during the COVID-19 outbreak, visit JED’s Love Is Louder Action Center and the Jed Foundation website. We also encourage you to engage with communities of campus professionals through organizations such as the American College Health Association, the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and the American Council on Education.