Mental health and holistic well-being continue to be central issues for students in the U.S., especially given the COVID-19 pandemic and transitions between online and in-person instruction. According to a 2018 international study of college student health, one in three first year students reported mental health issues (Bruffaerts et al., 2018). There is a pressing need for changes, both short and long term, that address student health and holistic well-being.
The first step would be to expand on counseling services for students. Reports note an overwhelming increase in the number of students seeking college counseling services (Beiter et al., 2015). The presence of such counseling centers is a step in the positive direction, but such resources need to be further developed in ways that are more accessible, such as by increasing the number of trained and licensed health professionals in charge. Additionally, the opening hours of health and counseling centers can be extended to accommodate more students so that they do not have to wait as long for an appointment.
In expanding on counseling resources for students, it is important to keep cultural sensitivity in mind. Different cultures tend to project varying levels of comfort with open discussions about mental health and wellness. Especially in some Asian cultures, seeking psychological help and therapy can be a sign of weakness and is thought to bring shame to family reputation and honor. Additionally, consistent eye-contact, while important in face-to-face counseling appointments, can be perceived as rude or intimidating by some students.
Keeping factors like these in mind, counseling services should be varied and diverse in approach. To provide support that does not require in-person interaction, centers could compile wellness resources into booklets, including a list of online counseling/mindfulness applications (such as Mindspace, Talkspace, and Betterhelp) as well as facilities unique to the college campus. Telecounseling may be introduced as well for students who prefer anonymity. The goal of counseling, either in-person or through various other mediums, is to provide students personalized support.
However, expanding on counseling services for college students is only the short term solution to the overwhelming increase in mental illness and need for psychosocial support. Counseling is considered an external support system, “there if you need it.” By isolating wellness into a separate sphere from everyday student life, students are forced to go out of their way to seek help. For some, this can bring a level of embarrassment amplified by cultural stigma surrounding mental health.
The root cause of the issue needs to be addressed: the lack of early wellness intervention. When students do not engage in coping strategies early on to manage stress, they will be more susceptible to compounding mental illness in the future. Therefore, wellness needs to be treated not only from a crisis intervention perspective but also as a basic life skill. It needs to integrate into everyday culture to truly be destigmatized.
One solution is to incorporate preventive wellness strategies into academic curriculums. In doing so, students will not only feel more comfortable opening up about their wellness journeys, but they will also develop mindfulness, self-awareness and balance.
Medical schools are increasingly integrating wellness education into curriculums, and programs about alternative medicine are being expanded upon that emphasize holistic health and disease prevention. This interdisciplinary assimilation of wellness can be applied to college-level classes in core fields of study across the humanities and sciences. Art is a powerful medium to express imagination and emotions, and it can also be used as a coping and relaxation tool. Wellness and mental health education can also easily connect to topics like neurobiology, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and chemistry as these provide more insight into the molecular basis of well-being and their applications to society.
In addition to college-level curriculums, wellness should further be introduced in early childhood education, such as early learning centers and elementary schools, so that children are more aware of coping skills and resources available to them. For example, yoga can be introduced as an afterschool activity or component of physical education. As a certified children’s yoga teacher, one of my goals has been to create lesson plans that make yoga more dynamic and engaging for children: incorporating games, music, and art. Wellness should also be integrated within the classroom. For example, during read-alouds teachers can pose reflection questions that encourage students to think more critically about the emotional journey of the characters or how the students would feel if they took the place of the character in the story. When a student starts crying or gets into an argument, teachers can encourage them to use the “time-out” period as an opportunity to reflect on, and perhaps write a journal entry on, why they misbehaved and the impact their actions have on the other classmates. Emotional learning is crucial not only because it instills more empathy and open mindedness at an early age, but also because it equips students with the self-awareness to manage emotions and navigate through psychologically stressful situations later on.
Overbooked counseling appointments in schools and the sharp increase in mental health challenges highlight two important considerations moving forward: one, that counseling services need to be expanded on to accommodate for the needs of more students, and two, that holistic well=being needs to be emphasized in early childhood and integrated into school curriculums. Many aspects of student life are now embraced as the “new normal”. Rising mental illness and lack of psychosocial support, however, shouldn’t.
Beiter, R., Nash, R., McCrady, M., Rhoades, D., Linscomb, M., Clarahan, M., & Sammut, S.
(2015). The prevalence and correlates of depression, anxiety, and stress in a sample of college students. Journal of Affective Disorders,173, 90-96. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2014.10.054
Bruffaerts, R., Mortier, P., Kiekens, G., Auerbach, R. P., Cuijpers, P., Demyttenaere, K., & Kessler, R. C. (2018). Mental health problems in college freshmen: Prevalence and academic functioning. Journal of Affective Disorders, 225, 97-103. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2017.07.044