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Recognizing and Addressing Student Mental Health Concerns

Mon Jan 22, 2024 at 07:30 AM

Recognizing and addressing mental health issues can be life-changing for your students. Increasingly, emerging adults (18-28) face significant mental health issues. 

A review of the National College Health Assessment and the Healthy Minds Study found marked increases of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation (Duffy et al., 2019; Lipson et al., 2019) prior to the pandemic among young adults. Recent data show increases of mental health issues among college-age populations (Nails et al., 2023) since the pandemic. Health disparities also perpetuate unmet mental health needs among underrepresented populations (Kodish, et al., 2022), especially among racial and sexual identity/gender minorities.   

From including language on your syllabus to creating awareness and connecting students to resources, the following suggestions can help you recognize and address student mental health issues in your courses. As a licensed counselor and Professor in the Counseling Department, I find that these strategies include basic tools anyone can use to enhance communication when someone discloses mental health challenges.

Strategies to Address Mental Health

Reducing mental health stigma by advocating and discussing mental health increases awareness and the likelihood to engage in services. The tools below are basic approaches to facilitate awareness and response; however, keep in mind that different contexts most often foster different student responses. 

Adding Mental Health Language to the Syllabus 

Including statements on your syllabus can help normalize the student’s experience; in addition, discussing mental health issues throughout the semester lets your students know that you support their mental wellbeing.

Mental Health and Well-being Syllabus Suggestions 

Adding a statement, such as the following, to your syllabus can help show these aspects. CETL’s recommended OU syllabus template has a similar Mental Health and Well-being section with additional resources.

At times, students may have personal concerns that impact their learning experience. Oakland University is committed to advancing the mental health and well-being of its students. If you feel overwhelmed and/or need support services, they are available.

For help, contact the OU Counseling Center(in the Graham Health Center) at (248) 370-3465. Student resources can also be found at the Oakland University Dean of Students’ Mental Health and Well-being.

For immediate 24/7 services contact Common Ground via chat or call or text the word “hello” to 1-800-231-1127.

Contextualizing Potential Mental Health Issues and Information

Acknowledging the potential stress students might experience during academic pursuits can help you tailor a message to fit your course. For example, I teach counseling classes that require a high-level of introspection. Therefore, I may add the following statement on my syllabus: 

This class requires self-reflection that may create discomfort. 

In my graduate courses, I often acknowledge the role overload (full time jobs, family obligations, and school work) many of my students experience. I stress the importance of accessing support to manage these stressors; for example, the OU Recreation and Wellbeing Center, OU Counseling Services, and Student Organizations. In undergraduate courses, I emphasize how developmental transitions, academic challenges and career decision-making can be stressful and remind them of the value of maintaining healthy habits by including a statement such as the following: 

As college students, you may experience difficult transitions, academic challenges, and career challenges. One of the most important steps you can take as a young adult is to be aware when stress is affecting your mental and physical health. If you experience increased mental health concerns, it is important for you to connect to support and improve your overall well-being and engage in healthy habits that benefit your mental health. 

Recognizing Student Mental Health Signs 

We are at the frontline for students and may see signs of mental health decline among our students. It is important to keep in mind that you may not notice these shifts with students because you may not be in close interpersonal contact. However, as a faculty member, you may notice missed classes, missed assignments, struggles with group assignments and less engagement. Here are common signs that a person may be struggling (adapted from Grizzle Response: Awareness and Suicide Prevention GRASP Trainings):

  • Sudden changes in behavior
  • Losing interest
  • Insomnia or oversleeping
  • Isolation

Use these signs as opportunities to check in with a student. This provides them an opportunity to share mental health concerns and gives you the opportunity to start a dialogue about seeking mental health resources. The following section includes potential do’s and don’ts when discussing mental health with a student. 

Creating Connections with Students Struggling

Keep in mind that each situation is unique, so how one receives and gives information can change based on individual differences. Therefore, the key is to begin a discussion with empathy. One way I do this is to state that I am glad they are willing to share their distress with me. Other things you can do or shouldn’t do include the following: 

Things to Do 

  • Express your willingness to help 
  • Acknowledge their experience 
  • Normalize their experience 
  • Know that situations can change and what they are experiencing may be temporary
  • Provide connection to resources 

Within these do’s, there is a sweet spot. You often want to avoid minimizing a person's pain and discomfort but introduce the idea that what they are experiencing is temporary or could change. Feelings and situations can change even if it is difficult to see that possibility in the moment. 

Here are some examples: 

  • Acknowledge their experience or communicate your concern: I understand you are feeling anxious due to all your end of the semester assignments.”    
  • Normalize their experience: ”The end of the semester can be a stressful time for students and what you are feeling is common.”
  • Situations can change: ”I know you are feeling anxious about assignments. I wonder if breaking down this assignment together will help you lessen your feelings of being overwhelmed.”
  • Provide Connection to Resources: ”Now that we have worked through the assignment, I am wondering if you found that helpful? There are several supports on campus that might help working through assignments (Academic Skills) and feeling overwhelmed (Counseling Center).” 

At the minimum, acknowledge their experience and try to instill hope.

Things to Avoid 

  • Guarantee confidentiality: A student may disclose that their distress is very serious and they are at potential risk to self or others. Therefore, if you guarantee confidentiality, this can impact trust if you need to contact emergency services, student affairs, and/or the counseling office.
  • Avoid ignoring or minimizing issues: Avoid communicating that what they are experiencing is small or quickly solved.
  • Making the problem your own: Know your limits. Generally, faculty are not mental health professionals; therefore, avoid becoming overly involved beyond your knowledge and skill level.     

References and Resources 

Duffy, M. E., Twenge, J. M., & Joiner, T. E. (2019). Trends in mood and anxiety symptoms and suicide-related outcomes among US undergraduates, 2007–2018: Evidence from two national surveys. Journal of Adolescent Health, 65(5), 590-598.

Kodish T, Lau AS, Gong-Guy E, Congdon E, Arnaudova I, Schmidt M, Shoemaker L, Craske MG. Enhancing Racial/Ethnic Equity in College Student Mental Health Through Innovative Screening and Treatment.Adm Policy Ment Health. 2022 Mar;49(2):267-282. doi: 10.1007/s10488-021-01163-1. Epub 2021 Sep 9. PMID: 34505211; PMCID: PMC8850289.

Lipson, S. K., Lattie, E. G., & Eisenberg, D. (2019). Increased rates of mental health service utilization by US college students: 10-year population-level trends (2007–2017). Psychiatric Services, 70(1), 60-63.

Nails, J. G., Maffly-Kipp, J., DeShong, H. L., Lowmaster, S. E., & Kurtz, J. E. (2023). A crisis in college student mental health? Self-ratings of psychopathology before and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychological Assessment. 35(11):1010-1018. doi: 10.1037/pas0001241. 

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About the Author

Lisa Hawley is a Professor in the Department of Counseling at Oakland University and a Licensed Counselor. Lisa teaches a wide variety of counseling courses including mental health, group, introduction to counseling at both the master's and doctoral level. In addition, she has served as the Department of Counseling Chair, CETL Chair Fellow and multiple service roles for the university.  Currently, Lisa is researching SES measurements in counseling research.  Outside of work, she enjoys being outdoors (hiking, biking, kayaking, etc.), watching movies, and cooking with family and friends.

Edited Rachel Smydra, Faculty Fellow in the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University. Others may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NCFollow these and more on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.