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Holistic Student Supports

Commitment to mental health supports requires a deep understanding of our students

Stories & Case Studies
October 12, 2021
Students sit on stone steps, working on notebooks and laptops

This post, written by ATD staff, was originally published by Advising Success Network.

After grappling with the ongoing effects of the coronavirus pandemic, increased awareness of nationwide racial and social injustices, and the challenges we meet in everyday life, taking care of one’s mental health has become more important than ever. College campuses are not immune to the effects that increased stress has had on the experiences and persistence of students through college. A recent survey by Active Minds found that 89 percent of college students have experienced stress because of the pandemic, and one in four said that their depression has since significantly increased. Research suggests that students who struggle with mental health are twice as likely to leave higher education without completing a degree or credential than those that do not report struggling with mental health.

At Achieving the Dream (ATD), we recognize that mental health is one of many aspects that make up the intersectionality of a student’s identity. We believe that to better serve students we must understand them as whole individuals – recognizing that addressing basic needs, academic supports, mental health, and advising among other student experiences must be holistic and equitable to provide valuable supports toward student success. We have heard from many colleges in our Network that they have seen an increase in requests for mental health support from students since the start of the pandemic and want to learn how their peers are addressing this issue. To support our colleges in this work, ATD is hosting a Student Mental Health Summit held virtually on November 4. This summit is part of the first day of our 2021 Holistic Student Supports Institute where we will explore partnerships colleges have developed to provide mental health services to students, how technology is expanding access to professionals, and how faculty and staff have stepped up to connect students to mental health resources during a time of collective and individual trauma.

In preparation for this event, we have been analyzing how our Network colleges have responded to this growing need.

Rowan College of South Jersey has a Wellness Center that offers free services to all students on campus. They provide case management and referral services, mental health workshops, and access to food for students who experience food insecurity. Their center already had strong telehealth services in place and further marketed these services to students in response to the pandemic. In addition, they partnered with state and county Mental Health & Addiction Board and Traumatic Loss Coalitions for additional support services and increased their social media presence to expand their outreach. To track their effectiveness, they collect data on students that access their services, including information on referrals to other services, number of hospitalizations, graduation and retention rates, and qualitative data on student experiences. All data are then de-identified and compared to other cohorts to gauge the success of their efforts. Their office believes that through mental health supports, a well student is a retained and graduated student.

South Central College in Minnesota found that about 140 students accessed mental health resources on campus in 2019–2020. They plan to compare these data to the number of students who access services through the rest of 2021. In the meantime, they’ve begun to provide professional development for staff and faculty regarding mental health issues and have implemented telemedicine services.

Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe University, a tribal college located in Wisconsin, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Lac Courte Oreilles Bizhikii Wellness Center in their community to provide services to students. They found that faculty have increased the number of students they refer to mental health services as awareness of these supports increased.

The Lonestar College System in Texas recently released their Care for Completion website to share both on- and off-campus support services. When students access the website, a pop-up solicits feedback on any additional resources they might need. Lonestar has also begun evaluating the use of their online request for service forms. This evaluation is being used to develop a triage approach to provide wraparound supports to better address student needs.

Many colleges used their CARES funding to set up new avenues through which students could access mental health supports. One smaller college even used funds to provide access to a fitness trainer for students and employees, acknowledging the close connection between physical and mental health.

Efforts like these demonstrate what can be achieved when passion and commitment to student success meets a deep understanding of our students. Earlier this year, ATD and the Advising Success Network (ASN) released a new guidebook to help institutions with this work titled Knowing Our Students: Understanding & Designing for Success. The guidebook urges institutions to look beyond simple disaggregated data and build a more complex understanding of their students to uncover inequities and explore other untapped data to understand what challenges students face on their way to their goals. While gauging individual student challenges with mental health requires students to disclose that information, understanding what types of challenges exist that impact their mental health will help inform the resources institutions can provide to students. This can be done through quantitative and qualitative measures that help paint a picture of who our students are.

Mental health issues have traditionally been stigmatized in our society. It is exciting to see that higher education is normalizing mental health awareness and putting students and their needs at the center of their work. As we continue to improve how higher education serves students, it is important to know who they are and understand the academic and non-academic challenges they face. With this understanding, we can continue to be engines of opportunity and economic mobility for our students and communities.

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