Published on March 2, 2022, at 7:10 p.m.
by Sophie Gregor.
For many students, the college experience means all sorts of new: beginnings, opportunities and freedoms. Students can venture out to different cities and states to become immersed in a new environment. They can experience new opportunities academically and socially. Students can even discover new freedoms, such as more independence. Despite these aspects creating positive benefits for the overall college experience, they can also have negative effects on students’ mental health.
Students often do not think to check for mental health programs when applying for college. Factors such as academics, social life and athletics typically determine one’s college decision. Although a majority of colleges are slowly increasing their mental health programs, there are a few colleges that have been ranked the best for supporting mental health on campus. The University of Pittsburgh, The Ohio State University and The University of California, Berkeley were ranked the top three in 2021. These colleges were ranked highly due to their available resources and a variety of programs such as counseling, workshops and support services. They promoted these services through creating safe spaces and having representatives available to communicate with students.
College is often known as the best experience of one’s life, yet statistically, this assumption is not accurate. It has become increasingly common for college students to experience mental health issues. In a 2020-2021 survey taken by college students in the United States, 41% admitted to having variations of depression. Another survey shared the statistic that 31% of college students in the United States are diagnosed with anxiety.
It can be tricky for college students to balance both an academic and a social life, all while being in a new environment on their own. Feelings of stress and being overwhelmed commonly arise, which can lead to depression and anxiety. Some students may find it difficult to acknowledge these feelings and tend to bury them deep inside. Others do not always feel comfortable reaching out for help due to a fear of how they might be perceived.
Strong lines of communication between support systems is key for helping students maintain a healthy balance during their studies, noted PERITUS public relations President Louise Oliver. She encourages those with public relations skillsets to use their gifts to help strengthen their peers’ (and one’s own) college experiences.
“Many of our intangibles [listening skills, genuine empathy, strategic counsel and problem-solving] help build bridges that can move the needle with mental health challenges,” Oliver explained. “Whether it’s building awareness campaigns to reduce stigmas, supporting friends who are going through a tough time, or leveraging our passion for connectivity to bring the appropriate stakeholders together, don’t underestimate the power of change communicators can spark.”
The stigma of mental health is slowly changing, yet there still is not enough awareness. According to a 2021 mental health data collection from various research studies, 95% of college counselors reported that mental health concern is growing on their campus. The number of college students who struggle with their mental health is large, yet the number of students who actually seek help remains small.
Allison Lowe, LPC-MHSP, CEDS, is a psychotherapist and owner of The Nourished Brain LLC, located in Knoxville, Tennessee. When discussing ways to further change the mental health stigma, Lowe stated, “I think we need to learn to talk about mental health the way we talk about other aspects of health. We don’t usually ask questions about or judge why someone is going to the dentist for a routine cleaning or to the gym to exercise, yet many students still feel shame around telling their peers they see a therapist or psychiatrist. Mental health is health.”
There are multiple avenues for colleges to help raise more awareness of the mental health resources and programs available to their students. Options such as creating clubs, promoting guest speakers and shared media strategies are all potential solutions for reaching more students.
Clubs that are active on campus allow for members to be surrounded by peers who have experienced similar issues with mental health or are open to learning more. Guest speakers are available to talk about a range of health topics and share personal stories to create genuine connections and responses. Shared media strategies can include creating posts for platforms to announce mental health events, list resources and even share personal stories.
“Stories are essential to help reduce the mental health stigma,” said Hanlon Walsh, public relations manager for PERITUS public relations. “As PR professionals, we have the opportunity to use our knack for storytelling and creativity to share powerful mental health stories.”
Students can also practice mental health self-care. Activities such as yoga, healthy exercise, reading, meditation and journaling are found to be extremely beneficial for an increase in mental health. Integrating self-care into their daily routines is one of many ways students can work on improving themselves mentally.
With consistent and frequent communication efforts, colleges must work with their students to encourage them to take care of themselves not only physically but also mentally. Instead of dismissing college students’ mental health, it is time for colleges to face the issue directly and be a part of the solution.