Why Focusing On College Students’ Mental Health is a Must Do, Not a Nice to Do

By Simone Figueroa, Co-Founder and President U-Thrive Educational Services  

When I first went to college in 2009, I struggled. From the outside looking in, my life looked “perfect” and it appeared I was happy and thriving. I was getting straight “A”s, I had joined a sorority and made new friends, and my family back home was healthy.  However, something was still missing. I wasn’t happy and I quickly became overwhelmed, stressed, and depressed. I was trying to balance a social life with getting good grades. I was frequently staying up late, studying harder than I ever had before, and I wasn’t eating well like I was accustomed to at home. I sacrificed things that I loved, like being active, and I started to turn to food as a coping mechanism. This combination led me to gain weight and I no longer felt comfortable in my own skin, which only compounded my feelings of stress and depression. 

Thankfully, I was fortunate enough to have a supportive family I could turn to, as well as  the opportunity to go to therapy. Getting help allowed me to get back to baseline, but it wasn’t until my Junior year when I fatefully took a credit-bearing course called Mindful Living that I went from merely surviving in college to thriving. In this class, I learned how to be present, how to focus on the positive amidst challenges, and basic stress management and coping skills. I remember distinctly thinking at the time, “Wow, I wish I had learned these skills at the beginning of my college career–it would have saved me so much strife.” Little did I know, this impact would extend beyond my time at college and ultimately shape the trajectory of my career.. Unfortunately, experiences like mine are all too common on college campuses, and it is time for administrators to prioritize the mental and emotional health of their students by taking proactive measures . 

There are few moments in one’s life as pivotal and monumental as going to college. This period of transition for many is marked by  leaving home for the first time, facing increased academic rigor and financial pressures, making new friends, identifying a career path, and more. It is no wonder why the mental health crisis sweeping across United States college campuses is specifically prevalent in first year students.

According to the 2016 UCLA Higher Education Research Institute survey of first year students, nearly 12% say they are “frequently” depressed (Donaldson James, 2017).  Another survey in 2016 also highlighted the difficulty students faced specifically with the transition to college. In fact, 87% reported such difficulties including, but not limited to, financial, isolation, and work since moving away from home (Seldon & Martin, 2017). Without the proper resources to cope with these stressors, anxiety and depression can become rampant and alcohol and drugs can be misused and abused, beyond the already overindulgent mentality associated with college life. According to Jaschnik (2015) a recent survey of American first year college students discovered that 50% felt stressed most or all of the time, and 36% did not feel as if they could control the daily stress of college life. The survey also found a correlation between stress and grades, with students with lower grades reporting they were unable to control stress. Lastly, 87% of students said that while high school prepared them academically for college, it did not provide any skills on how to socially and emotionally adjust. 

While stress is inevitable, these statistics provide evidence that there is a tremendous opportunity for colleges and universities to take a greater responsibility in providing students with resources on how to handle these stressors before they arise. In fact, I would go as far as to say it is the duty of higher education institutions to do so. But how? 

It is evident that universities are making a valiant effort to increase their students’ well-being by offering a plethora of free resources related to health and wellness. These resources include everything from online handouts on health-related topics to free meditation workshops, to dedicated stress-free zones and complimentary massages. However, there is a vital flaw with all of these efforts: they all rely on students to reach out for help and to take advantage of these offerings on their own volition. This is not in the best interest of their students’ well-being. Students are focused on juggling their classes, extracurricular activities and social lives (and as mentioned above, these are some of the culprits of the increase in stress and burnout on college campuses). When students are feeling overloaded and stressed, the last thing they want to do is add something else to their plate (i.e. seeking help or taking a workshop on mindfulness) even if this very thing could help alleviate their suffering. 

Higher Education institutions need to shift from taking a traditional, passive approach to a more active one by embedding heart-based skills training into their curricular and co-curricular programming via pre-orientation, orientation, and first year seminar classes. This includes educating and equipping students with the skills that help us thrive in life such as grit, compassion, resiliency, and so on. Of course, this type of programming does not replace the need for mental health centers and counseling services, but may rather help alleviate the current inability of mental health centers to meet student demands. According to Kingkade (2017), the number of students eliciting help for mental health issues is exceeding growth of enrollment by close to five-fold. By teaching students effective coping skills, they might be able to handle stress and other common trials and tribulations on their own before they potentially escalate to more serious issues. This may then open space for only those students with severe mental health issues to get the treatment and care they need without long-wait times for appointments. While tremendous progress has been made with respect to lessening the stigma against mental health, programming geared toward mental wellness would only further this effort  by encouraging students to be more aware of what they are experiencing and  identify if what they are dealing with requires professional help. By normalizing this subject matter, students will then hopefully feel encouraged to seek help if needed.

Positive Psychology, Mindfulness, and Self-Compassion are three fields that effectively focus on cultivating heart-based skills and have been shown to positively impact college students. Positive Psychology is the application of psychological research on human flourishing and optimal functioning to help humans lead an engaged, meaningful, and fulfilling life. Studies show that college students who report higher levels of optimism (Carver et al., 2009) and emotional well-being (Diener, 2000)–two aspects of positive psychology–enjoy college more and report higher levels of satisfaction with their college experience (Schreiner et al., 2009). Mindfulness is purposeful, nonjudgmental attentiveness to the present moment in oneself and in the external world. Studies have found that college students with higher levels of mindfulness experienced lower levels of stress in response to academic stressors and used less defensive, more effective coping strategies (Weinstein, Brown & Ryan, 2009). Mindfulness training has also been shown to positively affect a student’s transition to college (Ramler et al., 2015). Self-compassion is the capacity to forgive, encourage, and motivate oneself when struggling with feelings of personal failure or inadequacy. Self-compassion training has been found to reduce chronic academic stress among college students (Kyeong, 2013; Zhang et al., 2016). Furthermore, self-compassionate students are also more likely to respond constructively to academic setbacks, maintain their motivation and sense of competency, and perceive their mistakes as opportunities for potential growth (Neff, Hsieh, & Dejitterat 2005). 

Earlier, I shared that the credit-bearing course on Mindfulness I took during my Junior year impacted me so much that it shaped the trajectory of my career, but I didn’t share how. Knowing firsthand what it feels like to struggle during the first year of college, I co-founded U-Thrive Educational Services, an organization that brings mental and emotional wellness programming to first year college students by equipping them with the tools needed to manage stress, improve resilience, and thrive throughout their undergraduate experiences and beyond. I truly believe that if we spent as much time helping students succeed mentally, socially, and emotionally as we do academically, our students would be better adjusted and happier individuals, which would in turn lead to improved academic performance, retention, and graduation rates. Through U-Thrive’s research-based programs, I hope to normalize the fact that going to college is hard and foster a sense of community where students can bond over these challenges. I hope that students feel empowered that they have the right tools and resources to overcome the personal struggles and setbacks characteristic of the transition to college. I hope that students will develop a robust toolkit that they can refer back to for the rest of their lives in times of need. I hope students will gain greater self-awareness, self-understanding, self-acceptance, and self-compassion and that they’ll utilize effective strategies and habits for managing stress. And lastly, I hope that they develop deeper insight into what constitutes happiness and how to live a meaningful, personally fulfilling life during their college years and beyond.

About the author

Simone Figueroa graduated Cum Laude from the University of Florida with a Bachelor’s degree in Finance and concentration in Spirituality and Health. Simone graduated top of her class from Columbia University with a Masters degree in Clinical Psychology in Education with an emphasis on Mind-Body Medicine. During her studies at Columbia University, she took a year long practicum in Positive Psychology and became fascinated with and quickly saw a need for Positive Education, which led to the start of U-Thrive Educational Services.Simone lives in Tucson, Arizona with her husband, Isaac, and her dog, Diesel, and has a passion for traveling, hiking, and spending quality time with family and friends.

Contact: simone@uthriveeducation.com 

References

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