By Mary Kate McGrath - January 27, 2020
Rising rates of mental illness on college or university campuses in the United States are among chief concerns for higher-education safety teams. One in three college or university freshman report a major mental-health disorder, including depression, anxiety, or substance abuse, according to an American Psychological Association survey published in September of 2018. Over the past 10 years, rates of mental illness among college students have doubled, with anxiety and depression remaining leading issues, according to University of Michigan study. For college-aged people, suicide remains the second-leading cause of death, as per the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Given these alarming statistics, it’s no wonder college or university counseling centers are struggling to meet demand for services, and that certain campuses are seeking alternative, innovative solutions, such as mental health wellbeing courses.
Due to pervasive stigma around mental illness rates among college-age individuals may even be underreported, and it’s impossible to know the full scale of the mental health epidemic. Yet, even as public leaders, mental health advocates, and peer-led organizations encourage students in need to seek help, colleges and universities face logistical issues. As more students are seeking help, college and university counseling centers are struggling to keep up with demand, subjecting students to long wait-times or forcing them to seek care off-campus. For college or university leaders looking to bolster services on campus, alternative strategies are becoming increasingly popular, from partnerships with nearby healthcare facilities, workshops for students looking to offer better peer-to-peer support, or making a mental health wellbeing course part of a student’s required curriculum.
Establishing a mental wellness course as part of a freshman’s required curriculum is not without precedent. Until recently, a physical education requirement to promote student health was common-practice on university campuses, though such programs are on a decline. In 1920, 97% of higher-education institutions required a physical education course, but by 2012, that number shrunk to 39%, according to study conducted by Oregon State University. Researchers pointed to budgetary restrictions and a focus on “real” courses as a predominant reason for the decline in popularity, despite statistics suggesting these requirements make students both more productive, as well as promote physical or mental wellness.
For any school looking to approach mental health from a holistic standpoint, a mental health wellbeing course can be considered a reimagining of a traditional physical education curriculum. Several colleges have already put wellness requirements into student curriculum, such as The University of Southern California, which now requires all undergraduate students to take a one-credit course called “Thrive: Foundations of Wellbeing”, according to the Chronicle of Higher Ed. The course meets twice a week, and includes one session devoted to guest lectures from professors with experience in mental health and wellness practices, as well as group “connection” sessions. Students found the course valuable - data collected from course surveys found that 93% of students felt the course gave them a new perspective, and many cited feeling closer to their peers, as per Chronicle of Higher Ed.
The University of Dayton in Ohio also invested in well-being coursework for undergraduate students, but has taken a different approach. Undergraduate students in campus housing are given the option to participate in a mental-health training module online, and receive incentives to participate, such as priority housing lottery-numbers for the next semester or year. For those who participate in mental health or wellness community events in-person, even more points will accrue, and they will be given an even better lottery position for housing. The University of Dayton works with an outside vendor to provide the training, and though it is not currently mandatory, has found approximately 25% of students living on-campus voluntarily participated for the first year, as per Higher-Ed Chronicle. No matter which form of wellbeing coursework a school decides to incorporate into their mental health services, it can have a net-positive impact on campus safety.
Amid rising rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental illness on campus, incorporating mental health wellbeing training into formal coursework can help campus safety take a more integrated approach to the mental health epidemic. Often, a mental-health wellbeing course can break down barriers for students who might not know how to seek help, or who are afraid to reach out. Encouraging discussion about mental health in the classroom or the community can further break down stigma, and help students better understand how to help a peer experiencing a mental health crisis.
More specifically, it can benefit college or university campuses struggling to hire enough counselors to meet health clinic demands. “Our counseling center is busy, just like everybody else’s, but that can’t be the only solution to the trends we’re seeing on campuses,” Sara DeWitt, coordinator of health education at the University of Dayton, told the Chronicle of Higher Ed. By encouraging students to participate in wellness training as part of their transition to living on campus, the university is able to bolster existing counseling services. Whether or not a college or university chooses to include mental health hygiene as part of formal coursework or provide training for on-campus students, programs of this sort can raise awareness and contribute to a safer, more open school environment.
One tool which can help implement a mental-health wellness course on campus is a campus safety app, which can be used to send reminders to students to enroll in required or optional coursework. Campus leaders can also use the app to remind students that seeking counseling or care on campus is possible, and administrators can centralize important student health information in an app directory, providing students with information about health and wellness center or counseling clinic hours, intake process, and phone numbers.
During an emergency, students can use the app to contact campus safety or call 9-1-1, providing first responders with critical location data. By encouraging students to use the app, campus safety can expedite emergency response, and get any student experiencing a mental health emergency the critical help they need as quickly as possible.
Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.
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