Creating cultures of wellness empowers students to take care of themselves so they can thrive, connect and belong.

by Dustin Ramsdell

From the Pathify Magazine

Beneath the often tranquil surface of college campuses, a storm brews — one that is increasingly hindering to student success. The shadow of student mental health looms large with its pervasive and intricate nature, casting a shadow on retention and graduation rates. This does not have to be a tale of despair — embrace it as a call to action and an opportunity for transformation.

Across the nation, campus leaders face the stark reality that mental health issues among college students have reached unprecedented levels. The urgency of the moment demands comprehension and decisive steps forward. With every institution accountable, a vibrant and inclusive community must be forged where institutions embrace and empower students. As the student population diversifies — welcoming older learners, first-generation scholars and underrepresented individuals from around the globe — this mission grows in importance.

Worrying Stats

It’s crucial to first unravel the magnitude of this crisis. Fortunately, a rising tide of organizations now focus on quantifying the mental health woes of college students. Among the startling statistics — a staggering 60% of students admit to grappling with overwhelming anxiety, while 40% deal with depression, as evidenced by the American College Health Association’s 2022 Annual Report. 

Amidst this turmoil, institutions often find themselves adrift, struggling to provide adequate support. The Center for Collegiate Mental Health’s (CCMH) 2021 Annual Report paints a disheartening picture — overburdened campus counseling centers contend with an average ratio of more than 300 students per counselor, a stark contrast to the national standard of 120 students. A 2023 Student Voices survey unearths another disheartening truth: 50% of students grappling with mental health conditions never sought support from campus counseling services.

The Stakes are High

A focus on mental health is absolutely critical in maintaining the ongoing viability of student success. In a 2023 survey Inside Higher Ed reported 37% of students with fair or poor mental health say increased stress impacts their academics. In addition, the CCMH Annual Report found 51% of students experienced decreasing academic distress during counseling, making the chances of withdrawal less likely. A May 2023 Student Voice survey reported prospective students choose institutions based on their investment in supporting mental health. 29% of prospective students selected this as the top wellness factor when deciding where to study.

Building Student Belonging

A major component of institutional strategy addressing this issue must focus on fostering student belonging. Without this, a student likely won’t engage with resources in the first place. Student belonging means each student feels comfortable and confident to be their authentic selves. In doing so, it also means they find like-minded peers and supportive faculty and staff mentors to create a safe space for learning and developing.

A whole host of innovative, adaptable approaches are available to institutions. This includes reflection exercises done during orientation that make students think about community, why it is important — and the roadblocks they may face before school even begins. These exercises should be delivered for both in-person and online students. This type of active thinking ahead of time helps students to anticipate challenges and begin their journey prepared. 

It also includes more substantive efforts like investing in physical spaces for students to come together, such as lounges, cultural centers or event venues. In addition, there needs to be a balanced approach that creates digital spaces for students to connect (like the Communities functionality in Pathify!) This supports interactions for all students, (whether they study on campus or not) as it levels the playing field for engagement. Make social opportunities available to every student. Throughout any of these projects, it’s important to reflect on the diversity of your student body so every background feels seen and valued.

Creating a Wellness Culture

Any institution seeking to better support student mental health must approach this growing need in line with its culture, its resources and the desires of its students. We’ve seen community colleges like Columbus State Community College taking a blended approach to supporting their students’ mental health. They hired more dedicated staff on campus, recruited interns, and trained student wellness coaches to augment their capacity taking in students needing support. This also included a partnership with Uwill, expanding its reach with a high-quality virtual counseling option. (These resources are now common with the growing popularity of platforms such as BetterHelp.) 

The entire New Jersey state system of higher education is working towards implementing Uwill as well as offering virtual counseling services beyond the bounds of traditional office hours. The impact of students gaining access to dedicated 24/7 mental health support at no upfront cost is profound. They (and their parents) no longer need to coordinate therapy appointments based on availability or whether or not insurance covers it. With the program announced in late May 2023, the upcoming academic year will be the first true test of this exciting initiative.

The challenge with implementing any of these projects often associates to how frequently institutions get in the way of progress. The College Futures Foundation highlighted this concern in a May 2023 report, sharing the importance of leaders addressing areas of hurt on campus that impede student well-being. Often, institutions unfortunately isolate students from marginalized backgrounds and foster cultures of individualistic competition. The ways to address this includes many of the ideas offered previously — but it’s also important for leaders to change ingrained paradigms around how institutions traditionally invest in counseling services. Success requires a clear vision, persistence and some creativity, all while building coalitions with all relevant stakeholders, including students.

What is our Why?

Crafting an environment where every student thrives remains a difficult proposition, requiring untiring dedication, intricate planning and a profound understanding of diverse needs. This task is not merely important — it’s paramount. 

While it’s hard and complex work to create a vibrant, dynamic sense of belonging for all students, is there anything more important today? For higher ed to maintain its current relevance, we need to provide as much help as possible managing the stressful demands of their lives while simultaneously pursuing their academic goals. Given the investment these students make to go to school, we owe it to them.


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