In May, Mental Health Awareness Month brings topics for discussion around self-care, finding the right therapist, or practicing mindfulness have become popular discussions, and in the last few years mental health has become front of mind in higher education. The pandemic elevated pre-existing concerns of college students’ mental health; according to Active Minds, 39% of students in college experience a significant mental health issue, additionally, 67% young adults (18-24 years old) with anxiety or depression don’t seek treatment. Students who are struggling mentally are likely struggling academically and tend to be less engaged in their campus community as well.
But what are we doing now as higher education support staff? Even prior to the pandemic, college wellness centers were struggling to meet the demand created by students’ mental health needs. Currently only about 40% of students believe their university is doing enough to support their mental health. Some universities have adopted telehealth services to bridge the clinician gap, but this approach frequently falls short in terms of creating wrap around services (holistic support to ensure all needs of the student are addressed) and a warm hand-off (direct referrals made between support staff) when a student needs more than just a therapist.
The pandemic disrupted students’ ability to create a sense of belonging on their campuses; as a result, they lack support systems as they seek help with their finances, academics, career exploration, and physical and mental health. At Chicago Scholars, we primarily serve first-generation, low-income students, and we know it’s best to have multiple avenues of support that help our Scholars manage their feelings effectively. During the summer before college, we make sure our Scholars know the resources they have available to them, both on campus and through our organization. Our team often refers Scholars to their school’s wellness center, where they can access not only counseling services, but they can also receive resources related to life skills. Moving out and being on your own is a big life transition. College students are not only navigating academics and building their social connections, but they also need to learn how to follow a budget, stock a healthy fridge, make their own medical appointments, exercise, and most importantly manage their own time.
It can be hard for a first-year college student to recognize they need help, so in the last several years, we’ve made strides to incorporate wellness and mental health into all our college success programming. At Chicago Scholars, we pair first-years with a mentor who checks in with them at least once a month. These conversations give Scholars a chance to not only talk about classes, but to work through the challenges involved in adjusting to their new environment. We’ve forged partnerships that allow some Scholars to access free mental health services and continuing to add more of these opportunities. Our staff has taken advantage of professional development opportunities to better support our Scholars including QPR (question, persuade, refer) training and becoming certified as Mental Health First Aiders. Additionally, our Lifeline Emergency Fund supports our students’ basic needs like rent or groceries to help reduce stress and keep Scholars enrolled.
Mental health has evolved into a top priority for higher education and the students we serve. The pandemic taught us that having mental health support and providing staff with a multitude of tools is the best way to meet the diverse needs of our students. Use this May to learn what other organizations and colleges are doing to address college students’ mental health. If you want to partner with Chicago Scholars to provide support for our college Scholars, contact our College Success team at firstname.lastname@example.org.