Across the United States, college and university campuses are facing a mental health epidemic. Over the past decade, rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns among college students have risen exponentially. Despite the scale of mental health on college campuses, health center services and other resources remain underutilized.
In 2018, a survey conducted by the American College Health Association found that 3 out of 5 college students experience anxiety, while 2 out of 5 students report being too depressed to function. Many more students reported dealing with issues related to depression or substance abuse.
But not everyone dealing with a mental health crisis seeks help. Only about 10-15% of the student population experiencing a mental health crisis will seek support from their college counseling center. In addition to responding to mental health emergencies on campus, safety officers can take an active role in raising awareness about counseling resources and directing students in-need toward the appropriate care.
Psychologists believe several major factors are contributing to increased stress on campus. Among these concerns are economic anxiety amid rising tuition costs, a focus on perfectionism, struggling to adjust to early-adult life without the 24/7 support of parents, and other external pressures. College-age students are also at a higher-risk of suffering from mental illness, which is often onset during early adulthood. The pressure of college or university life can trigger a mental health crisis, and campus safety teams should consider their own role in building an emotionally healthy school environment and responding with the appropriate strategies when mental health emergency occurs.
Many college or university campuses have invested in mental health support, understanding how expanding these services can be essential for managing student wellness and safety. Campus safety managers cannot personally address external stressors on campus, but they can provide students, faculty, and staff with the appropriate information and resources to mitigate their concerns. In many cases, students will not fully take advantage of the college or university counseling center offerings, either due to lack of information or stigma. Including mental health as part of the annual discussion around student safety and wellness is essential, and campus safety officers can play a variety of roles when it comes to helping individuals seek the help needed.
What Role Does Campus Safety Play in Mental Health on College Campuses?
Emergency response during a mental health crisis may be the main responsibility for a campus safety officer. Often, students may feel that they have no choice but to turn to 9-1-1 when experiencing a mental health crisis. Increasingly, campus police will act as the first line of defense for a student who is having a crisis on campus. Training for campus safety officers on how to handle mental-health situations are essential — helping to students-in-need can be a difficult and delicate situation. If a campus safety officer has proper strategies they can provide immediate intervention and guide that student to a mental health professional.
Navigating effective response during a mental health crisis is a growing topic among campus communities. In 2018, Queens College in New York piloted a partnership with Northwell Health aimed at helping students through a psychiatric crisis and back into school as quickly and smoothly as possible, as per NPR. The program aims to include college public safety officers, first responders, counselors, and paramedics trained in mental health emergencies in crisis response. These individuals help students in a mental health emergency seek care on their own terms, prioritizing the students privacy and recovery.
These are reactive approaches to mental health, and while important, a proactive strategy for addressing emotional well-being on campus can further prevent crises. Connecting with the community can help to identify the behavior of at-risk students sooner, and direct those individuals to the appropriate care. This is a more sustainable safety strategy than waiting for a student to have a mental health crisis, which can often put the students in danger and disrupt the path of their education.
How To Actively Support Mental Health
By taking an active role in mental health programming on campus, safety teams can go above and beyond to promote student safety and wellness. Many college or university campuses have student groups dedicated to breaking mental health stigma and raising awareness o For example, the organization Active Minds operates student-run chapters on college and university campuses across the United States. If campus safety officers engage and partner with organizations such as this, they can help decreasing stigma and raising awareness about mental healthcare. Participating in these organization's work can also help to better understand the challenges students face and better promote emotional wellness on campus.
Similarly, the University of Pennsylvania operates a training program called I CARE. The I CARE program employs mental health clinicians to train faculty, staff, and students through information, discussion, and exercises. Topics addressed over the course of the training include mental health beliefs and biases, signs of stress, distress, or crisis, listening techniques, crisis intervention skills, and seeing mental healthcare services. This training is not only a valuable asset for the community, it can also be a way for campus safety officers to take a more active and meaningful role in creating a healthy environment for students.
Many college or university campuses have begun to employ similar programming to address the growing need for mental healthcare on campus. Collaboration between on-campus wellness programming and campus safety officers can help better identify at-risk students and get them the healthcare needed, as well as build trust with a community. Students in crisis may be vulnerable, and it's critical that they feel their wellbeing matters to campus safety leaders.
Technology can also be a valuable tool for building a safety net for students struggling with a mental health crisis. A campus safety app can be a guide to mental health resources on campus. The app contains a directory of important numbers, and campus safety managers can update the list in real-time. It also contains a resource center, which can let students know what resources are available to them.
Often, the campus community may not be taking advantage of the campus counseling center because they’re not aware of the services available. The directory would be available to all students and can be part of raising awareness about the center on campus. A campus safety app also has an emergency call button to connect students directly with campus safety. If a student is having a mental health crisis or is worried about a peer, the app allows them to reach out directly to campus safety for help.
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