This interview is part of HORAN Campus Health’s series, “Moving Mental Health Forward,” stories that spotlight leaders in the mental health field and examine the ways innovation and new approaches are changing how we perceive and treat mental health conditions.
It’s impossible to have a conversation about the health and wellbeing of college students without talking about mental health. In fact, mental health services in higher education was the topic of conversation in the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors’ annual report. And though the pandemic exacerbated the crisis, college and university campuses across the nation have been racing to adjust to increased demand for counseling services for years.
The need is stark: Last year, 77 percent of college students said they experienced moderate to serious psychological distress, 35 percent had been diagnosed with anxiety, and 27 percent had been diagnosed with depression, according to an American College Health Association report.
So how can college and university administrations cope with rising levels of mental health conditions among their students and provide the help they need? We turned to Dr. John Ward, a licensed clinical psychologist and director of Miami University’s Student Counseling Services, for insight into this vital question.
Here, he reflects on the unique mental health challenges college students face, an encouraging shift in how people recognize mental health, and approaches Miami has taken to better support the needs of their students.
College students are disproportionately more likely to experience mental health conditions. What puts them at higher risk?
JW: Developmentally, young adulthood is a period of great change, growth, and identity transformation. Traditionally-aged college students are experiencing these developmental markers while simultaneously encountering the transition to the academic and social rigors of college-life. Naturally, this swirl of events can result in emotional distress for some college-aged students. Perhaps even more notable, however, is this generation’s increasing comfort with acknowledging and expressing emotional distress. This encouraging generational and attitudinal shift may be another factor that leads to college-aged folks experiencing increased mental health concerns.
As more and more college students face mental health challenges, has the need for counseling services increased on Miami University’s campus? How have administrators coped with this surge in demand to ensure students in need are supported?
JW: Nearly all colleges and universities across the country are discussing how to best support their students’ emotional and mental health needs. At Miami, we have excelled in this space in a number of ways, including:
- the adoption of a philosophical “stepped care” framework to shape our approach and decision-making
- the recent adoption of a mental health fee to drastically expand the offering of our services
- an institutional task force focused on faculty, staff, and student mental health
- increased interest and synergy across the entire university around programming and education efforts involving mental health and emotional wellbeing
- leveraging our relationship with alumni and friends of the university to provide opportunities to financially support programs and positions pertaining to mental health and emotional wellbeing
- careful and strategic adoption of high-impact virtual options to enhance and expand our reach.
All of these efforts have been made in consultation with key constituents across campus, particularly students.
The U.S. surgeon general recently declared loneliness a national epidemic. Have you noticed feelings of loneliness and isolation impacting Miami University students? How do administrators support student connection?
JW: Loneliness is a concern that has always impacted college students. Some students entering college have often struggled to find a new sense of home and connection during the first several weeks (perhaps months) on campus. Additionally those preparing to graduate often have anticipatory fears about their ability to find social connection outside of the collegiate environment. For many students these scenarios are normative and administrators support students by helping them to expect and prepare for such challenges. Other students find themselves feeling lonely despite being surrounded by peers in classes, residence halls, and extra-curriculars. At Miami we have found that for many students online connection (i.e. social media) is not a suitable substitute for traditional face-to-face forms of engagement. We encourage students to take time to unplug from their mobile devices and the associated stressors of self-comparison, and to be present in the moment with their friends and peers. We intentionally create physical spaces, social opportunities, and curated programs to foster belonging and connection. These initiatives start with orientation, continuing into their first weeks on campus, and persist throughout their tenure at Miami.
What are some common barriers to mental health care and how can campus administrators combat them?
JW: Given the growing number of students seeking mental health services along with the simultaneous increase in the complexity of their concerns, colleges and universities across the country are required to think creatively around issues of access, ensuring that all students are quickly seen following their initial outreach, are triaged and then appropriately served across a broad array of services both clinical and non-clinical.
During the 2021–2022 academic year, nearly 1 in 5 clinical positions in college or university counseling centers experienced turnover, according to the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors’ annual report. How does staff turnover affect student wellbeing and how can administrators better support their providers?
JW: Staff turnover can disrupt clinical services by making clients have to “start all over again” with a different clinician. Frequent staff turnover can also create operational challenges such as redistribution of caseloads, or social challenges that impact the morale and social connection of staff members that remain. Many professionals enter university counseling work not only to work with the college-age population, but also for the variety of tasks they can engage in. In addition to therapy, opportunities for teaching, supervision, consultation, and preventive programming hold wide appeal to practitioners. Administrators can support clinicians by being mindful about the balance of tasks staff are able to engage in or the portion of time allotted to various tasks. Decreased variety of tasks might negatively impact clinicians' work satisfaction. Clinicians should also be compensated at a level commensurate with their skill, experience, and training to help optimize work satisfaction and performance.
At HORAN Campus Health, we champion bold innovations and offer customized health plans, resources, and tools designed to improve the overall health and wellbeing of your students. Together, we can offer the holistic support students need to thrive on campus and succeed in life.
To get started, visit our Campus Health webpage to fill out a simple contact form or get in touch with Phillip Arrington, Vice President of HORAN Campus Health, at PhillipA@horanassoc.com.