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Four Ways to Support Student Mental Health

Transitioning to life in college can be difficult for many students, as it involves a number of “first time” experiences. Whether it's learning how to manage a budget, maintaining strong grades or even finding new friends, college life can put a strain on a student's mental health. According to a 2011 National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) study of college students diagnosed with mental health conditions, nearly three fourths of respondents experienced a mental health crisis while in school. All too often, students can find themselves facing punishment for actions resulting from mental or behavioral health issues. By recognizing the potential for a student to develop depression, anxiety or addiction, and offering a safe harbor and care solutions, student conduct professionals can play a valuable role in the campus ecosystem that supports students as they become acclimated to life away from home. 

Create Safe Spaces

For even well acclimated students, college life will bring new challenges and obstacles. Whether it's a high school valedictorian who finds themselves struggling in a freshman class, to a popular high school athlete who is having a hard time making friends without organized sports, college students are experiencing many things for the first time. Unfortunately, many of these first experiences can stoke mental and behavioral health conditions like depression, anxiety, addiction and eating disorders. These conditions can sometimes cause students to violate their campus' code of conduct, leading to reprimand and punishment. While maintaining a healthy, safe campus environment is critical, research has shown that students who are afraid of harsh repercussions are less likely to seek help from their school. Consider developing a medical amnesty policy for students who proactively seek help, or who are open to support. Creating a safe space for students to address their mental and behavioral health concerns can ultimately serve to prevent future conduct violations.

Listen First, Advise Later

It's normal to want to give a student advice on how to manage the things on their plate, especially if you have had similar experiences. But oftentimes jumping straight to advising can make a student feel like their voice isn't as important. Similarly, while your first instinct might be to focus on the conduct violation, asking questions about the student's mental state can often uncover more serious issues. Instead of focusing on the rule violation, let the student share their side. Not only does this serve to foster a stronger relationship between you and the student, it also helps uncover potentially larger concerns, which you are then able to address.

Develop a Support System

For many students, college can be overwhelming enough to dissuade them from seeking outside help. In your role, you can facilitate developing a support system for students both on-campus and in the local community. According to the American Psychological Association's 2014 report, A Strategic Primer on College Student Mental Health, “…we need a web of caring services that make it more likely that students who experience symptoms or consequences of a mental or behavioral health problem, whether those symptoms are personal, social, or academic in nature—will ‘stick' somewhere and find their way to one of the entry points for mental and behavioral health care.”  If a student is open to counseling, have a list of resources ready to share. Help the student work with student services and their professors to ensure they are aware of the situation and best able to help the student succeed in class, despite their mental health condition.

Change the Culture

For students dealing with mental or behavioral health conditions, it's critical for them to feel like they aren't alone in what they are experiencing. Even for students who may initially be reluctant to acknowledge a mental or behavioral health concern, creating a safe space, actively listening and providing a system of support can make an immense difference. Changing the culture around mental and behavioral health on your campus can go a long way in strengthening student outcomes, both in the classroom and continuing on past graduation. If you find yourself working with a student who may need more support know that you have the opportunity to make a significant positive impact in their life!

Interested in more resources and information concerning mental health issues in higher education? Consider joining the ASCA Mental Health Community of Practice.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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