Innovative campus safety technology can be a versatile resource in helping students battle college depression season. Numerous stressors place college students at a higher risk for mental illness and it's important that university leaders work to better understand the crisis and learn how to best help students.
When students depart for college, whether that means living in a dorm, moving into an apartment near campus, commuting from home, or attending night classes, it should be a time of excitement. However, students often underestimate the demands of college and the transition period can leave some yearning for stability. Many students struggle to cope with these changes, and mental health issues are often onset during college years. The college experience is often marketed as the “best times” of someone life, which can make it even more difficult for students who begin to struggle with mental illness.
In recent years, colleges have faced a mental health crisis. Depression and anxiety are on the rise and a growing number of students are seeking treatment for mental illness with the help of campus counseling and wellness services. These mental health struggles tend to hit the hardest during the winter months. Luckily, there are tools and strategies that campuses can use to look out for their students during this time.
Why Are College Students At Higher Risk For Mental Illness?
The financial stressors that students face today shouldn’t be understated. Millennials and Gen Z students will graduate into a competitive job market and for many, the stress of student loans, holding second or even third jobs, and other financial burdens weigh heavy on their college experience. It’s increasingly common for schools to emphasize professional achievement, such as the pursuit of internships, along with academic success. These responsibilities require a work-life balance that many young people are not prepared for.
There are many scenarios in which students in a college environment might struggle with mental health. For example, high school students who attend a university often find themselves academically burned out and ill-prepared to handle a college-level course load. High school students who are less financially fortunate might struggle to balance busy work schedules with academics, and feel overwhelmed by the financial uncertainty. There is a lot of pressure to choose a career path or even a major, and many students remain undecided or force themselves into disciplines they are not passionate about. The culture of college - which often includes lack of sleep, alcohol consumption, poor diet and lack of exercise, can also contribute to a decline in overall physical and mental health.
It’s no coincidence that students today are struggling with higher rates of mental illness. According to the American Psychological Association, 95% of college counseling center directors are concerned about the number of students with significant psychological problems on campus. The number of students struggling with psychological disorders seems to be on the rise as well, and 70% of the directors surveyed indicated an increase in students who reported severe psychological disorders in the last year. The long winter months can be particularly taxing on students, especially when coupled with a high-stress exam season or professional uncertainty.
The same survey found that anxiety is the top concern among counseling directors, with 41.6% listing it as a top priority. Depression is the second major concern, with 36.8% of counseling centers reporting it as a major concern. In recent years, school counseling directors have seen a worrisome trend in these mental health scenarios. Ashley Stauffer, a project manager for the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State University, told NBC News in 2017 the following:
“What has increased over the past five years is threat-to-self characteristics, including serious suicidal thoughts and self-injurious behaviors.”
Seasonal Affective Disorder, or the Winter Blues, can compound these symptoms. The short, dark days of the winter months can be taxing. The Cleveland Clinic reports that about half a million people in the United States suffer from SAD, and that 10 to 20% of people suffer from a more mild form of winter blues. Those who attend college in cold and cloudy areas, such as in the Northern region of the United States, will be more vulnerable to these down periods. It’s important for students and faculty to be aware of the increased risks of college depression during the winter months, and to make sure there are plenty of avenues to reach out for help.
How to Help
While there are steps college students can take on their own to plan for the difficult winter months, colleges and universities should invest in positive mental health initiatives to help them. It’s key that both students and staff are aware of counseling options or other mental health initiatives on campus. Organizations like Active Minds, which has a chapter in almost every state, will provide resources for school’s that might not have adequate mental health or counseling resources.
It’s important for schools to encourage healthy habits. Mindful behavior can help combat the winter blues, and students should try to exercise regularly, eat a balanced diet, and wake up early. Adjusting indoor décor, such as decorating white walls and introducing plants into your room, can also be helpful. If possible, invest in a SAD lamp or light therapy. Some college campuses even provide these resources in student lounges and other shared spaces.
However, when someone is already suffering from mental illness or seasonal depression, it can be difficult to adjust these behaviors without further intervention. That’s why every college should consider investing in technological resources to help students in the case of an emergency.
Two-way text messaging with 911 is proven to help prevent self-harm scenarios and to help gather information for first responders so they can intervene and provide a timely response befor an incident escalates. In recent years, many crisis hotlines have opted for a text format in lieu of the traditional phone call. Millennials are more likely to text than call, even in emergency situations or times of distress.
The Crisis-Text Line, a non-profit started by the DoSomething organization, provides free, 24/7 text counseling for anyone having a mental health crisis. If a student is having a difficult time, they can use this app to reach out and initiate a conversation with a live, trained counselor. The conversation only ends when both the user and the counselor feel that they have reached a “cool” place. The counselor will connect the person with further help or assistance if needed. Crisis-Text Line also tracks data trends from the conversation and uses this information to better understand mental health crises and response.
Texting is also useful for students who are concerned about a peer or another student but are afraid to speak up. Anonymous two-way tip texting can help connect campus safety with students on campus and empower them to report any concerning behavior on campus. If someone on campus is struggling with a serious, life-threatening mental health issues or substance abuse, students can connect with campus authorities. For many, this capability might be life-saving.
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