Why We Should Partner with Students to Address Campus Mental Health

July 16, 2018

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Students know students, says Laura Horne of Active Minds. Engaging them as equal partners in improving mental health on campus can make all the difference.

This post is the latest in a series on college student mental health and well-being. 

In 2000, as a college freshman, Alison Malmon lost her only brother to suicide. After his death, her family learned that Brian had suffered in silence for years. Determined to do something to change the way we approach mental health in this country, in 2003 Malmon started an organization from her dorm room in an effort to educate and activate students to build awareness among their peers and save lives.

Today, that organization—Active Minds—has a presence on more than 600 campuses with a reach of more than 5 million people. We work with student advocates to encourage their peers to learn about, talk about, and seek help for mental health issues just as they would for a physical issue—without shame or silence.

According to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of suicides is rising sharply in most of the United States; among college-age students, suicide is the second leading cause of death. Recent studies estimate that up to 36 percent of college students are dealing with some form of serious mental health issue, yet only about a third receive treatment or support.

But a landmark study published last month in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry demonstrates that empowered students are highly effective drivers in shifting the campus climate to be more supportive of mental health.

RAND Corporation surveyed more than 1,100 students at 12 colleges and found that as students become more involved with Active Minds, they are more likely to reach out to a classmate or friend who is struggling with depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts. Among the general student body, even basic familiarity of Active Minds increases knowledge and positive attitudes about mental health, creating a more supportive campus climate and increasing the potential that students in distress will seek mental health services.

This news comes at a time when the country is grappling with rising suicides and a mental health crisis on campuses. It shows we can effectively address these problems by focusing on student-led change, and when we do, the effect is life-changing. In fact, researchers found that the shift in attitudes and behaviors is so swift, the effect can be seen within a single academic year.

That’s because students know students. They turn to each other when struggling with health. They are also experts in the most effective strategies to engage their fellow students and create a campus culture and climate that fosters mental health, physical health, and well-being.

Examples of Effective Student-Administrator Collaboration

Healthy Campus Award winners Arizona State University, the University of Oregon, Duke University, and Kent State University, and others are putting students front and center through student-led solutions, such as student-led programming, student support groups, and peer educators, for fostering emotionally healthy campuses where students support each other through good days and bad.

Additionally, many Active Minds students and university presidents are successfully partnering to address mental health challenges. For example:

  • Active Minds at Ithaca College and the University President worked together to ensure the addition of two new mental health counselors and a case manager.
  • Student Anthony Sartori used Active Minds’ Transform Your Campus campaign to work with university administration at the University of Maryland at College Park to establish a student liaison to the counseling and health centers and to help interview new candidates to fill vacancies in the counseling center.
  • Due to a compelling case and campus-wide survey presented by Active Minds student Krystal Murillo at Mount San Jacinto College, the college’s board approved the creation of a health center on campus.
  • At the online campus American Public University, Active Minds and their university leadership collaborated to survey students on mental health needs, which led to funding for providing tele-therapy services.
  • The university leadership at the University of Michigan approved 13 major mental health recommendations proposed by the Active Minds chapter and student government leaders after the students initiated a campus-wide mental health climate survey.


Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois Springfield.

Giving Students SEATS at the Table

Active Minds’ “Framework for Student Mobilization” ensures that efforts to improve student mental health engage students as equal partners in the work. An easy way to remember the framework is the acronym SEATS (student-informed, equitable, actionable, transparent, and sustainable).

Taking a student-informed approach means that decisions should be informed by data collected from students. National surveys, such as the Healthy Minds Study or the National College Health Assessment, are excellent strategies for collecting student-reported information regarding mental health and well-being. Additionally, as administrators become aware of students’ mental health stories, they should assist students in elevating their voices among their peers. Overall, there needs to be an institutionalized process for receiving and acting on student input on a regular basis.

Partners in this work also need to make sure their efforts to involve students are equitable, addressing gaps in opportunity for health among populations that are historically marginalized. For example, steps should be taken to provide cultural competency training for faculty, staff, and students that is holistic in its approach. Students and administration should also engage in partnerships and community-based participatory research from the very beginning stages of planning to ensure that programs and policies are responsive to the diverse needs of students. Student-to-student programming is among the most effective ways to ensure diverse representation and perspectives.

Student involvement also needs to be actionable. Those who are doing this work around mental health need to view students as equal partners in the process, and not just end users. Students should be involved at all stages of the process, not just in research or planning. Student organizations and leaders have an important stake in the issue of mental health. Programming efforts are most successful when they involve numerous student leadership bodies across campus (i.e., Active Minds chapters, student government, Greek Life, athletes, and others).

Student involvement is also most effective when communication is transparent. Strategies include allowing for two-way communication with students through town hall meetings, focus groups, and other methods. When possible, use the language and voices of students in communicating information back to the student body about how the campus is addressing mental health concerns. Additionally, administrators should share research findings, plans, and results with the students. Throughout this planning and implementation, administrators should provide an open door for students to university leadership to answer questions and provide support.

Finally, it is important for the efforts to be sustainable for the long term. Administration and students can consider establishing an Active Minds chapter to ensure student mental health leadership is sustained on campus year-to-year. To ensure success, Active Minds National provides funding, technical assistance, training, leadership development, and mentoring.

When administrators involve students in positive change around issues like mental health, students are more invested, successful, and satisfied with their college experience. They gain leadership experience and critical-thinking skills, self-identity, and motivation that impact many areas of their lives. Particularly, students with disabilities feel more autonomy and better self-esteem when included. Studies also show that stronger academic performance and retention rates result from student involvement.

There is much work is still left to be done in empowering student voices in campus decision-making. For technical assistance, more support, and examples of how university leadership are successfully partnering with students, contact Active Minds at www.activeminds.org and read Active Minds’ Position Statement on the Student Voice.

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