Our students are struggling. As a college president and a clinical psychologist, I know this well.
Recent headlines tell a distressing story about the mental health of college students. While the news articles are alarming, it is worth noting that much of the data they cite comes from self-reporting by students.
This self-reporting gives us important insights into how our students are feeling, but it is not equivalent to clinical diagnoses. By equating self-reporting with diagnoses, we risk applying the wrong interventions.
I’ve spent much of my career overseeing clinical services and other student supports, and I know the importance of clinical interventions. They are intended to be matched to specific diagnoses and can involve a variety of treatments, including individual or group and outpatient or inpatient, by licensed mental health professionals.
But I believe we must shift how we support students’ emotional needs. Clinical interventions are not the only way — and often not the most appropriate or effective way — to support young people who may be temporarily struggling with feelings that do not meet the full psychological definition of mental illness.
Rather than needing a clinical intervention, many students may benefit most from support that builds their resilience if they are feeling sad, worried, overwhelmed or anxious. Resilient students are better positioned to cope with temporary periods of heightened emotional stress.
In the past, teaching these skills was usually not seen as central to the mission of a college or university, yet learning how to cope emotionally may be among our students’ most vital and integral lessons.
It is something that will serve them throughout — and well beyond — their time on our campuses.
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Data drawn from student self-reporting provides important insights into their needs. Some 44 percent of students reported that they experienced symptoms of depression during the 2021-22 academic year, a Healthy Minds survey of 96,000 U.S. college students shows; 37 percent said they experienced anxiety.
In addition, two out of five undergraduates said that they “frequently” experience emotional stress, results from a Gallup-Lumina Foundation report found, while 36 percent of students pursuing bachelor’s degrees reported that they had considered “stopping out” in the last six months. The most commonly cited reasons were “emotional stress” (69 percent) and “personal mental health reasons” (59 percent).
Researchers have hypothesized that at least some of these self-reported crises may be due to an increased awareness and normalization of mental health conditions.
This awareness is something we should regard as positive and beneficial because it reduces the stigma and isolation that have long impeded students from getting support. But we also must recognize an unintentional, negative impact of this increased awareness: overinterpretation.
Young people experiencing negative emotions and facing normal developmental challenges may be particularly vulnerable to misidentifying those experiences as actual illnesses.
This is not to suggest that the mental health crisis is not real, or that we should not support our students or validate their experiences. Students are struggling every day on my campus and on campuses across the country. Mental illness often first appears or worsens in young adulthood, and for these students, accessing appropriate clinical intervention is critical.
But for many students, what will be most appropriate and effective are supports to develop their resilience and coping strategies and the confidence to rebound from setbacks.
Being a young adult today is not easy. In addition to facing typical challenges, such as forming an identity and developing life skills, they have grown up with pressures from social media, isolation brought on by the global pandemic and the economic and political uncertainties of the twenty-first century.
Rising college costs have also raised the stakes for many students. College is a huge commitment both monetarily and emotionally, and our students know it.
They inevitably face obstacles when they move into the college environment, such as not knowing where they fit in and encountering more challenging coursework than they had previously. Believing they are an outlier, rather than the norm, may undermine their resilience.
That’s why at Lewis & Clark we incorporate resilience-building practices, using research-based belonging exercises as well as intentional peer-to-peer support.
Two of our psychology professors, Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell and Brian Detweiler-Bedell, spearheaded our participation in a multiyear Stanford-led study that aimed to foster a deeper sense of belonging among our incoming first-year students, with the goal of helping them understand that their struggles are normal — and that things will get better over time.
The exercises in the study incorporated stories of obstacles faced by other students and how they overcame them. While the original study’s sample size was small, we saw an increase in retention rates and GPAs, especially among students from underrepresented groups. The results were so compelling that all incoming Lewis & Clark undergraduates now participate in the social belonging intervention.
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We also initiated a peer mentoring program specifically serving first-year students. The mentors reach out to incoming first-year students and introduce them to campus life with information about academic advising, navigating health and wellness services and various campus clubs and social options. The mentoring relationship begins during orientation and continues throughout the semester. Just as important as what the peer mentors do is how they model resilience.
Of course, approaches like these should be offered with an understanding of what other interventions some students may need. Clinical depression and anxiety disorders do require clinical support. Higher education institutions must continue to expand our capacity to provide such support for those students who need it.
But we must also prioritize programs that bolster resilience. These efforts can reassure and help students (and their families) who may be misidentifying their feelings based on popular rather than clinical understandings of depression and anxiety.
When it comes to setting students up for success in their professional and personal lives, resilience may be the most important skill we can encourage them to develop.
Robin H. Holmes-Sullivan is president of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. She has maintained a private clinical psychology and consulting practice for more than three decades.
This story about college students and resilience was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.