How Colleges Can Support Students in Distress

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Updated on November 19, 2021
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  • COVID-19 has exacerbated stress levels and anxiety for many college students.
  • Factors contributing to students' stress include isolation, trauma, and external pressures.
  • Colleges can support students by forming intervention teams and wraparound services.

The college experience is a pivotal time for self-discovery and change. For many first-year students, college represents an important transition, when they're forced to take ownership and autonomy over their personal life, as well as their career and academic goals.

Students who attend college far away may also experience a loss of family, friends, mentors, and other support networks. These social supports, or protective factors, often help in promoting a student's self-confidence and sense of belonging. As they transition to college, students must learn to cultivate new supports in an unfamiliar environment.

Additionally, many students must learn to effectively manage multiple competing demands, such as coursework, extracurricular activities, full-time or part-time employment, and social time with friends.

Students who attend college far away may experience a loss of family, friends, mentors, and other support networks, which often help in promoting a student’s self-confidence and sense of belonging.

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More colleges and universities are seeing students utilize counseling centers and students struggling with past or current thoughts of suicidal ideation. The second-leading cause of death among college students, suicide remains a major concern among university administrators. Suicidal ideation can be exacerbated by feelings of increased loneliness, stress, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.

Even before COVID-19, college students' mental health was of national concern. In 2019, the American Council on Education surveyed over 400 presidents at two- and four-year colleges to shed light on how executive leaders were navigating the student mental health crisis.

Presidents at public, four-year colleges (87%) were more likely than presidents at public, two-year colleges (79%) to report that mental health had become a bigger priority than it had been in previous years. Furthermore, three-quarters of all college presidents surveyed identified anxiety (75%) and depression (74%) as top mental health concerns for students.

Major Factors Contributing to Students' Distress

Today's college students face unique challenges, including a pandemic, financial obstacles related to the rise in college tuition costs and economic recession, and an overreliance on technology and social media, which can contribute to feelings of isolation and lower self-esteem.

Below are some additional causes of distress in college students:

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    Performance Anxiety: A sense of failure regarding academics; unrealistic expectations for grades
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    Loneliness and Self-Isolation: Loss of significant social relationships; lack of self-confidence in navigating social relationships; feeling estranged from family, friends, and/or partner
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    Pressure From Family/Friends: External (i.e., outside the college environment) stress originating from family/friends; family/friends' inability to understand the demands of the college experience; unrealistic social expectations from friends
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    Traumatic Events: History of abuse/violence; illness or death of a loved one; divorce or family separation; global events
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    Substance Abuse: The use of hazardous and harmful substances, including alcohol and illicit drugs

COVID-19's Impact on Student Stress and Anxiety

Last year was unlike anything else. The COVID-19 pandemic forced colleges and universities to switch to online learning, with many students having to learn remotely without any in-person contact with friends, classmates, faculty, or college support services.

The abrupt transition to remote education has exacerbated feelings of isolation and loneliness, and COVID-19 will have lasting effects on our economy. Statewide lockdowns, along with the reduction of services and hours at stores and restaurants, have led to students losing their jobs and facing higher levels of financial stress.

Many colleges have even experienced an enrollment decline, as more first-year students opt to take a gap year until campuses return to normal operations.

The abrupt transition to remote education has exacerbated feelings of isolation and loneliness. Statewide lockdowns have led to students losing their jobs and facing higher levels of financial stress.

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In an online study conducted by The Jed Foundation last fall, 63% of college students indicated that their emotional health had worsened following the coronavirus outbreak. In addition, 56% were concerned about their ability to care for their mental health.

The pandemic has also increased feelings of depression, anxiety, and loneliness, with many college students reporting an inability to concentrate. Students with learning disabilities, student parents, first-generation students, and low-income students have been particularly impacted by the global health crisis: Many in this group report feeling decreased motivation, a lack of social support, and a desire to drop out or delay their educational progress.

Remote operations due to COVID-19 have complicated how college counseling services can deliver mental health care to students. Many of these centers are not only reporting a shortage of counselors but also witnessing increasing levels of student distress. As such, college and university administrators must think creatively about how to meet students' mental health needs outside of a traditional counseling center and one-on-one appointments.

4 Ways Colleges Can Support Students in Distress

Leverage Campus Behavioral Intervention Teams

Campus behavioral intervention teams (BITs) consist of staff and faculty whose primary responsibility is to identify students in distress and students who display troubled or disruptive behavior that threatens campus safety and security. Members gather to discuss cases, identify areas of support, and develop an outreach plan for rectifying the situation.

BITs have become increasingly popular at large colleges and universities, where overseeing the entire study body can be challenging. Because students spend a disparate amount of time in different segments of the institution, it's important that BITs are diverse, with staff members from security, residence life, student services, human resources, and counseling services. The premise behind these teams is that staff members come from various departments so that they can quickly gather diverse resources to help and support students in need.

In a remote environment, behavioral intervention teams play a crucial role in coordinating communication about students in distress.

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In a remote environment — in which students, staff, and faculty are disconnected from traditional reporting channels — BITs play a crucial role in coordinating communication about students in distress.

Since remote learners often spend the bulk of their time with professors, faculty are often the first observers and first points of contact for students in distress. For this reason, faculty should be represented in campus BITs, and should report to the team any students who appear distressed or who have expressed feelings of distress.

The team can then work to develop an appropriate plan for the student. Many colleges have instituted food pantries, emergency funding, virtual counseling appointments, and peer support groups as a way to serve remote learners.

Create or Increase Mental Health Support Services

Addressing mental health challenges requires multiple, complementary efforts. Schools must identify risk factors, offer effective care and treatment, and provide proactive programming that focuses on wellness, positive coping skills, and social connections.

In order to promote a culture of shared responsibility regarding mental health, many universities have implemented bystander intervention programs. New York University's Action Zone, for example, teaches students, staff, and faculty how to effectively intervene in a concerning or emergency situation. Skills gained include how to identify concerning behavior, how to speak up and report an incident or problem, and how to encourage someone in need to seek help from the school.

Programs like Action Zone have proven to be highly effective, as many students may notice concerning behaviors in their friends well before these behaviors are recognized or addressed by university administrators. Moreover, college students are often heavily influenced by their peers and similarly influential, meaning that encouragement from a peer to seek help could be life-changing.

College students are often heavily influenced by their peers and similarly influential, meaning that encouragement from a peer to seek help could be life-changing.

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Many colleges have also embraced telehealth as a means to support students during the pandemic. Even as campuses begin to reopen, it's important to keep telehealth methods available for learners who can't access the physical counseling center due to work and/or child commitments.

In addition to holding appointments over Zoom, schools should offer phone counseling for students who may lack access to technology and/or reliable internet. Universities should try to vary the hours at which they offer appointment times, too. Evening and weekend times, for instance, have become increasingly popular for nontraditional students.

If a college is facing a shortage of counselors, hiring a social worker who can serve as a case manager for non-mental-health-related challenges can prove helpful. Many students in distress may also be experiencing food and housing insecurity or financial barriers, or may need help escaping an abusive or violent home.

The social worker would be the first point of contact and respondent to non-psychological concerns, and can refer students to both campus and external resources. This model can help lessen the student caseload for campus counselors.

Work With the Community to Provide Wraparound Services

With a decrease in state funding, many colleges have been forced to think creatively about how to meet students' holistic needs.

Comprehensive wraparound services have shown to be critical to student success and degree completion. Students are more likely to overcome barriers to achievement when they have access to transportation, child and elder care, healthcare, legal aid, domestic violence services, and family counseling.

Comprehensive wraparound services have shown to be critical to student success and degree completion.

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College administrators may develop memorandums of understanding between their campus and a local nonprofit to allow students to access certain community services. The school would then be responsible for funding these services. Or in cases of food insecurity, for example, a college might work with a local food bank to help students access food and supplies.

Wraparound services are critical for strengthening the relationships between colleges and local nonprofits. They're also essential when it comes to increasing the bandwidth of support for many universities experiencing staff shortages and financial problems.

Institute Training Programs for Students, Staff, and Faculty

Ongoing training ensures that staff, faculty, and students are able to recognize signs of distress and respond appropriately. Here are some popular mental health training programs:

  • Mental Health First Aid: This eight-hour course helps individuals identify and respond to signs of mental illnesses. Participants receive certification upon course completion.

  • Forefront Suicide Prevention: The University of Washington's suicide prevention toolkit includes webinars and videos on how to respond to someone who is considering suicide.

  • Coursera: This popular MOOC provider offers tons of college-level courses on various mental health topics.

  • Kognito: This site provides training and role simulations to build confidence and teach you how to lead conversations about stress and anxiety.

The Key to Supporting Students in Distress

Despite all the uncertainty the pandemic has brought, one thing remains clear: Mental health will continue to be a national concern, especially as it relates to college students.

Going forward, universities must work creatively to form internal and external partnerships that will ensure not only that students feel supported, but also that staff and faculty feel confident in their ability to recognize signs of distress and take appropriate action.

Editor's Note: This article contains general information and is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Please consult a professional advisor before making decisions about health-related issues.

Feature Image: Chanintorn.v / Shutterstock