As the prevalence of such conditions as anxiety, depression, and suicidality increases on college campuses, administrators are prioritizing the development of programming to improve mental health in college students. Factors leading to mental health issues in college populations are complex given the stresses that come along with transitioning to an independent lifestyle. This coupled with the many high-risk behaviors that emerge in college as maladaptive coping mechanisms are a recipe for dysfunction among college students. Not only can mental health be compromised long term if not addressed, academic success is often negatively impacted leading to economic issues for students and administrators alike. 

How to Support Positive Mental Health in College Students 

Make Sure Approaches Are Data-Driven 

There is plenty of literature out there that demonstrates the return on investment for college mental health programming. However, there are nuances to every school and when it comes to developing programming and prioritizing initiatives, context matters. In addition to investing in continued comprehensive mental health care for students, institutions should gather relevant data along the way in order to best serve their unique student population as its needs shift over time. Outcome and quality indicators should be embedded in evidenced- based initiatives. 

Start at Home

During the recruitment and admissions process, colleges and universities should assist parents in addressing potential mental health issues and help their kids develop healthy habits before they leave the nest. Parents should be encouraged to:

  • Reduce stigma about mental health issues: make sure students know it’s okay (and important) to ask for help
  • Explore mental health resources on college campuses: ensure that students know about the preventive and remedial resources that are available for addressing mental health issues they may face while on campus
  • Encourage positive coping strategies: acknowledge the social pressures and access to negative coping strategies such as alcohol and staying up late to meet deadlines in addition to modeling and promoting healthy alternatives (mindfulness, exercise, healthy eating, etc.)
  • Promote independent behavior before college: students are less likely to find themselves overwhelmed by independence on top of their academic responsibilities if they accustomed to this level of responsibility before leaving home
  • Prepare for setbacks: don’t be a source of pressure for academic success with students; instead anticipate that struggle is often inevitable and support is key

Incentivize Healthy Habits

They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Incentivization to encourage positive lifestyle choices can be a powerful strategy for maintaining positive mental health in college students. A study conducted by the Research Institute of Industrial Economics showed that students who received a free gym membership for a semester went to the gym more often and their academic performance improved.   

Address Issues Appropriately and in Good Time

In a 2017 report by the Association of University and College Counseling Center Directors, students reported waiting up to 7 days for an appointment with a mental health care professional. Some campuses such as Arizona State University and University of Pennsylvania have adopted an “open-access” system where students are seen the same day on which they present with an issue. By enhancing the accessibility of mental health services for college students, colleges can: 

  • appropriately address critical issues
  • accommodate students in a culturally competent manner
  • better attend to populations with the highest risk 

For those who do not have enough resources to handle all student mental health needs it is critical to connect with community resources and develop networks with potential practitioners peripheral to the institution. The best campus wellness programs tend to be those that are both multifaceted and tailored to fit a diversity of students’ individual needs.