Students are struggling with their mental health. The percentage of incoming students who report feeling overwhelmed has jumped from 28% to a full 40% over the past two decades.
What are the primary theories about this? Have overall stress factors increased? Some experts blame helicopter parenting, saying it leaves students unprepared for the disappointments and challenges that exist in independent life. But is that true? And even if it is, what should colleges and universities do to support students’ mental health?
Melissa Schreibstein, Director of Well-Being Programs for the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about why colleges and universities need to do a better job supporting our students’ mental health.
Why Universities Need to Do a Better Job Supporting Mental Health
“Our students are struggling with a variety of mental health challenges,” Melissa said, “so universities need to be agile and have a variety of ways to assist students in progressing through college. That includes a holistic focus on mental health and wellbeing.”
We probably can’t attribute the increase in mental health challenges to just one specific factor. We live in a complex world that moves at an ever-increasing pace, and students are feeling that. They hold high expectations for themselves.
“So we’re seeing the challenges coming from a number of different places,” Melissa said.
George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Wellbeing
“At Mason, we define wellbeing as building a life of purpose, vitality, resilience and engagement,” Melissa said. “It’s a holistic perspective on what it takes to live the good life.”
As a result, the university has established a number of initiatives, including the Center for the Advancement of Wellbeing. Its mission is to serve as “a catalyst for wellbeing.”
Melissa explained that “We don’t want to own all of the programming. We want wellbeing to live in the DNA across the university.”
Initiatives at Mason include the Wellbeing Living Learning Community, a floor of a dorm that’s dedicated to wellbeing with a class that students who live in that dorm take. Those students learn mindfulness techniques and other gratitude practices. There are also a number of classes dedicated to wellbeing from across a range of different academic units. Mason even offers a minor in wellbeing.
“We partner with our university life, which is Mason’s student affairs department, on a variety of initiatives throughout the school year, including a big one in the spring called Spring Into Wellbeing, which is a month long focus on wellbeing activities,” Melissa said.
Mason is also developing a new program called the Resilience Badge. It’s a hybrid course — part online, part in person — to help students develop competencies related to resilience.
“We’re looking to continue to develop that badge so that it can be available to every incoming student over the next couple of years,” Melissa said. “It’s another way that we’re trying to decentralize wellbeing at our university and make it available and relevant for everyone.”
Having a decentralized approach and a variety of different ways to serve students’ needs is what’s really important.
Next-Steps for Universities Looking to Improve their Mental Health Services
“At Mason, we believe that a systems approach is really the way to go,” Melissa said. “Our wellbeing initiatives started with a ground up approach and they’ve been met with a top down approach.”
Now, Melissa and her team recognize that what’s important is bringing all the stakeholders into the same room in order to gain input from across the university.
“And you have the resources to make wellbeing relevant everywhere,” she said.
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