By Simone Figueroa, Co-Founder and President U-Thrive Educational Services
There is no shortage of alarming statistics highlighting how many young adults ages 18 to 24 are struggling with their mental health, ranging from depression and debilitating stress and anxiety to seriously contemplating suicide. Throughout the month of September, attention has been increasingly drawn to these statistics to raise awareness during National Suicide Prevention Month. Higher Education Institutions and organizations alike recognize that there has been a growing mental health crisis on campuses for quite some time (well before the COVID pandemic was introduced). However, the approach taken to address these issues has been reactive at best. There is no denying the need to:
1) Destigmatize mental health and raise awareness of its existence.
2) Help students identify if they’re struggling with a mental health issue and encourage them to seek help if needed.
3) Teach students how to have difficult conversations with their roommates and friends if they notice a change in behavior, or signs of struggle.
4) Provide training to campus faculty and administration so they can also recognize signs of distress and help students get the help that they deserve.
But this is not enough. This approach mimics traditional psychology and therapy models, which tend to focus on what’s wrong with a person and help them get back to baseline once a problem already exists. We need to proactively help college students learn the tools and skills they need to handle inevitable adversity that they will face in college and in life. I believe that this is the crucial missing piece to the college mental health crisis puzzle, and it begins with proactive mental and emotional wellness programming.
A prerequisite for all incoming students prior to stepping foot on college campuses is to partake in alcohol and drug education programming and sexual misconduct prevention training. Why is there not a mandatory training for how to mentally, socially, and emotionally succeed as a college student? Why do we take a preventative approach to drugs/alcohol abuse, and sexual assault, but take a reactive approach to mental health and only teach students what to look for once they or their peers are already experiencing a crisis? If we truly want to fix the mental health crisis plaguing college campuses, then we need to invest in teaching college students how to care for themselves and how to be equipped to deal with the trials and tribulations before they occur. We need to not only provide college students with information on what to do if/when they/their friends become distressed, but also focus on helping college students avoid getting to that point of distress in the first place.
It is unrealistic to hope that no student will face a mental health disorder. In fact, 50% of people will experience a mental health disorder in their lifetime, most of which develop during the college-age years. It is also important to note that mental and emotional wellness programs are not a cure for mental health disorders, but they can serve as a buffer against what would be considered normal struggles and can hopefully help curtail the impact of those struggles before they reach the point of distress. It is also naive to think that every college student will be profoundly impacted by mental and emotional wellness programs, but the same can be said for any subject matter taught in college. Some students love humanities whereas others despise the field. This doesn’t mean that humanities isn’t a required area of study for all students as part of their general education curriculum. I would argue that the same logic should be applied when it comes to the field of “life skills”.
Although National Suicide Precent Month is coming to an end, the fight for student mental health will continue. My request is that whether you are a higher education professional, college student, parent of a college student, or mental health advocate, please speak up and join me in the mission of making mental and emotional wellness programs a core part of the college education and experience.
About the author
Simone Figueroa is the Co-Founder and President of U-Thrive Educational Services, an organization that brings mental and emotional wellness programs to college students to help them manage stress, become more resilient, and thrive throughout their undergraduate experience and beyond. 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 and completed her undergraduate education at the University of Florida with a Bachelors degree in Finance, Cum Laude. During her studies at Columbia University, Simone 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, being active, hiking, and spending quality time with family and friends.