Supporting Student and Employee Mental Health
Helping our community thrive.
In a typical year, 1 in 5 U.S. Americans will experience a mental health illness[i] and more than half will be diagnosed with a mental health illness at some point in their lifetime.[ii] A World Health Organization study has reported that the prevalence of mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression has increased by 25% worldwide since the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic.[iii] Students, both secondary and postsecondary, have been disproportionately impacted by these challenges and are experiencing an unprecedented mental health crisis.[iv]
Addressing this crisis will require a community-wide effort to (1) build awareness and open discussion of mental health, (2) promote evidence-based practices that improve mental health, and (3) provide the necessary supports so that each individual can thrive.
Talking Openly About Mental Health
A key challenge in addressing mental health needs is that social stigma has historically kept mental health out of our daily conversations. Now more than ever, we need to promote open and honest conversations about mental health and illness. In addition, it is important to meaningfully include college employees and especially students within these discussions.
To learn more about the importance of these discussions and what colleges can do to support students, hear from two WTCS students, Lyndin Atkielski (NWTC) and Celeste Sangster (SWTC) in a WTCS Voices conversation on mental health.WTCS Voices: Supporting Student Mental Health
On April 29, the WTCS Working As One team provided a ‘Mental Health 101’ session. This session marks the kickoff of ‘A Year of Mental Health’ series in 2022-23. These sessions will discuss different topics related to mental health for WTCS students, employees, and community members. Join the conversation.Working As One: A Year of Mental Health
For more recommendations in beginning mental health conversations across the college community, see the World Health Organization’s Toolkit for the Mental Health Gap Action Program. For best practices in supporting college student mental health, see Supporting the Whole Student from Active Minds.
Before exploring the practices that improve mental health it is critical to address two things: (1) an individual’s basic needs have to be met for them to thrive emotionally, physically and mentally and (2) they need to be welcomed and included within the college community.
Across WI, roughly 34% of households struggle to meet one or more of their basic needs (e.g., rent, food, childcare).[v] Across the nation, roughly 3 in 5 college students experienced basic needs insecurity in 2020.[vi] In addition, basic needs insecurity is considerably higher for individuals from minoritized communities due to longstanding systemic barriers that exclude them from opportunities to gain financial stability (e.g., redlining and homeownership).
Individuals from minoritized communities experience heightened trauma due to discrimination, constant microaggressions, and systemic barriers. This trauma negatively impacts mental wellbeing and overall health. For example, a UCLA study found that individuals who experienced discrimination a few times per month had a 25% higher chance of being diagnosed with a mental health condition.[vii] It is imperative to breakdown systemic barriers across the college and create truly inclusive communities in which all individuals are welcomed, valued, respected, heard, and able to participate. See the ‘Creating Inclusive Spaces’ innovative practice for resources and recommendations to promote diversity, equity and inclusion across campus.
A holistic approach to mental health
To address student and employee mental health needs, provide both in-person and online counseling services. Research shows that mental health counseling (e.g., cognitive-behavioral therapy) is effective at treating various mental health illnesses either in combination with medication or alone.[viii] Yet even before the pandemic, the availability of counseling services often falls short of the need.[ix] Thus, colleges should review policies and practices that support mental health, create a culture of caring, and promote evidence-based practices that improve mental health.
- See the College Student Mental Health Action Toolkit (The Healthy Minds Network, The JED Foundation) for recommendations for college mental health policies.
- See Supporting the Whole Student (Active Minds, National Resource Center for First-Year Students in Transition) for promising practices and case studies that address mental health needs across the college.
- See Creating a Culture of Caring (Active Minds, Association of College and University Educators), a resource guide for faculty to support student mental health.
Evidence-based Practices that Improve Mental Health
Clinical research has shown that several lifestyle practices can improve mental health and even help treat individuals who have been diagnosed with depression (see the video). The information below summarizes the lifestyle practices that can improve mental health along with ideas for how to incorporate these across the college. To learn more about these practices, visit Dr. Ilardi’s website or read his book The Depression Cure. To get students started with mental wellbeing, this information could be included within the first-year student success course.
Depression is a disease of civilization: Stephen Ilardi at TEDxEmory
Exercise improves brain functioning, has anti-aging effects, and reduces the body’s stress response and risk of depression.
Recommendation: Get 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, three times per week.
Incorporating this practice across the college: Create walking and fitness groups for students and employees and promote these on the college’s intranet. See the American Heart Association’s webpage for guidance on creating and maintaining walking groups.
Spending time with loved ones decreases the body’s stress response.[x] Social connection and support are vital for our mental wellbeing, and modern lifestyles especially with changes to daily activities with COVID-19 can lead to social isolation and anxiety.[xi]
Incorporating this practice across the college: Develop robust student organizations and cohort models within programs, and affinity groups for employees (see affinity group resources from the WTCS Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee). Consider having a Gratitude Challenge in which participants send an email/text/message of thanks or praise to someone in their life for 21 days – thanking a new person each day (see Happiness Hacks from Shawn Achor from Calm). Share resources for loving kindness meditation (e.g., Greater Good Science Center).
Ruminating, going over negative thoughts again and again in your mind, depresses your mood. When ruminating becomes a habit, this behavior can trigger depression.
Recommendation: Learn to identify ruminating thoughts with mindfulness practice. When you catch yourself ruminating, stop the rumination by engaging in a social activity, a solo activity that engages your mind (e.g., playing an instrument, exercise, gardening), write the ruminating thoughts down in a journal, or take a walk in nature.
Incorporating this practice across the college: Provide information about silencing rumination in the college’s intranet and resources for students and employees. Use and share the 30 Days of Mindfulness in the Classroom and Self Care Guide for Teachers from Calm. Additional resources for free mindfulness practices include Greater Good Science Center, Calm YouTube Channel, and Ten Percent Happier.
Sleep and depression are intrinsically linked, and sleep deprivation can trigger depression (Sleep Foundation).
Recommendation: Aim to get eight hours of sleep per night. Set a consistent time for going to sleep each night and waking up each morning. Have a consistent bedtime ritual with dim lights. Avoid caffeine and alcohol several hours before bedtime.
Incorporating this practice across the college: Share information about sleep quality and health in the college intranet for students and employees. This content could include the 7 Days of Sleep from Calm, information from the Sleep Foundation, and sleep journals (e.g., Calm Sleep Journal and Mindful Sleep Journal). Consider having a Sleep Challenge for students and employees (see the 4 week sleep challenge from the Minnesota Sleep Society).
For questions, please contact:
Hilary Barker, Education Director of Performance Analysis and Continuous Improvement
Stephanie Glynn, Education Director of Student Success
Colleen Larsen, Education Director of Student Success
[i] Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 2016.
[ii] Kessler RC, Angermeyer M, Anthony JC, et al. Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of mental disorders in the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health Survey Initiative. World Psychiatry. 2007;6(3):168-176.
[iii] World Health Organization. 2022. COVID-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide.
[iv] U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. 2021. U.S. Surgeon General Issues Advisory on Youth Mental Health Crisis Further Exposed by COVID-19 Pandemic.
[vi] The Hope Center. 2021. #RealCollege 2021: Basic Needs Insecurity During the Ongoing Pandemic.
[vii] Tokuyama. 2021. Discrimination increases risk for mental health issues in young adults, UCLA-led study finds. UCLA News Room.
[x] Ducharme, J. 2019. Why Spending Time With Friends Is One of the Best Things You Can Do for Your Health. Time.
[xi] Clair R, Gordon M, Kroon M, and Reilly C. 2021. The effects of social isolation on well-being and life satisfaction during pandemic. Humanities & Social Sciences Communications 8, 28. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-021-00710-3