Why Higher Ed Needs to Better Prioritize Wellness

New studies are suggesting that modern students are facing increased stress and mental pressure, as the incidence of reported mental health issues on campuses rises.

While research points to serious mental health risks in postgraduate and PhD student populations, mental healthcare is essential at all levels – and in all modes – of higher education.
Simultaneously, more students are seeing the value and pursuing degrees in mental healthcare fields. As such, it is no surprise that wellness and mental health has become a priority for millennial students, who look both for services that can help them deal with their mental health needs, and for schools that prioritize student well-being in their programming and amenities.

Higher Education Triggers

While studies indicate that poor mental health is a growing trend throughout Western society, the sharp increase in incidences within the academic community begs the question: why now? No one ever promises that higher education will be easy or stress-free, and most students enter their tertiary studies with some expectation of pressure and responsibilities. But research shows that, with increasing frequency, students are often both ill-prepared for the demands of academic life and increasingly demanding of their own abilities and performance. Coupled with the lingering burden of the world’s economic woes and growing anxiety around future opportunities, its no wonder that more higher education students than ever before are reporting mental health issues and disorders.

A UK study found that 33 per cent of scholars had experienced suicidal thoughts in the past year. And a US study revealed that 59 per cent of 200 canvassed students had been diagnosed with a psychological disorder at some point – and that’s just those who received a diagnosis.

Struggles with mental health can impair a student’s ability to study and complete their degree. The impact of poor mental health at university can therefore negatively affect the rest of the student’s life and career. With reports coming in that Gen Z (those born between 1995 and 2012) have the worst mental health of any generation on record, the situation only becomes more pressing.

Leaving home and secondary school for a new life where the pressure feels palpable can take an unexpected toll on even the most upbeat of students. But a university is a community of well-intentioned souls working together for individual and group betterment. That means that higher ed institutions should be perfectly positioned to look out for and take care of students with mental health issues.

Why is the demand for mental health care services on campus increasing?

For students from the US, the demands of academic performance are compounded by a background of increased violence (including mass shootings) at school, the judgmental nature of social media, and increasing awareness of the prevalence of sexual harassment (awareness good, sexual harassment bad). At the same time, study costs are rising, the job market is becoming more competitive, and there are fewer career ‘guarantees’ than those offered to previous generations. And while some of these issues are unique to American students, students around the world face increasingly complicated futures and challenges specific to their own countries and regions. For example, there are indications that Brexit and the uncertainty surrounding the UK’s exit from the European Union has triggered increased anxiety and reports of mental ill health in Britain’s young people.

The good news for the disproportionately high number of Gen Z’ers who are dealing with mental health issues is that they were born into an age where there is far less stigma associated with depression and psychological healthcare than there used to be.

And the digital aspect isn’t all bad news. In fact, despite its bad rap as a source of all the evil in the world, as many as two-thirds of Gen Z’ers reckon social media makes life better. They were born into the culture, so they may be better-adjusted to the complexities of social media than previous generations. Though they are still sensitive to being judged and to how they present themselves, they are also acutely aware that social media is not real life; or rather, they understand the part it plays in real life.

Curiously, Generation Z students show great interest in using technology to improve their mental well-being, even if they're struggling to find ways to do so. YouTube is their key resource since they can find voices that represent their interests from the same generational perspective.

What can universities do?

For all the wisdom and sensitivity that Generation Z demonstrates in comparison to previous generations, many students are still young people only commencing their adult lives. With little experience, remaining objective and choosing the most effective paths to wellness are a struggle when you have little to which you can compare your feelings and situation. What can universities and schools do to support these ambitious, but inexperienced students?

Offer support services

Most university campuses have a support center and health station that offers counselling and resources for students and staff. But offering support services where students can talk is just the start. A student struggling with mental ill health may not realize these services exist, have the strength to access them, or feel that such services will cater to their particular needs. It is important to publicize the presence and purpose of counselling services on-campus and to provide anonymous help-lines, online self-help resources, and outreach service to prompt students who may be hesitant to make that connection themselves.

Develop courses to foster growth

Universities can also preempt the strain and struggle of depression by providing courses in mental health for undergraduates. This could, for example, be part of the orientation process upon enrolment. It might be online or in a classroom, and can be followed up throughout the year with additional resources, refreshers, and workshops.

Provide a wellness center

Establishing these classes and resources as part of a campus wellness center (which can also contain fitness spaces and nutritional resources including cooking classes) sends a clear signal that student wellness is part of the business of daily life at an institution.

How to use these services to communicate with potential students

The promotion of these services begins before enrollment, and communicating your school’s attitude towards wellness with potential students can help them decide whether your institution seems like the right environment for them.

Discussing or mentioning those services at open days and interviews ensures that all students are aware of the availability of these vital resources. And of course, making them visible on the university’s webpage – maybe even with a mental health support section – gives potential students the chance to look things over securely on their own time.

But while these services are established with good intentions, they don’t exist in a vacuum: asking current students or alumni to talk about their experience of how the university helped them makes the support real for young students to whom student life may still seem abstract. Use your website, social media, and of course YouTube to share stories of wellness. Working together, your community can learn to take care of those who struggle within.

John is a digital nomad and freelance writer for higher education and marketing publications. A native Englishman, he is always on the move but can most commonly be spotted in Norway, the UK and the Balkans.