Supporting the Mental Health of Incoming First-year Students

July 2022 — By Keith Hannon

Starting college can be an overwhelming mix of deeply uncomfortable emotions. But for many students, it goes beyond just first-year nerves. Research shows more than a third of first-year college students experience a mental health crisis during their freshman year, a statistic that’s detrimental to students and universities alike. In 2018, Boston University’s School of Public Health reported that 30% of students struggling with depression drop out, one-fifth of whom might have stayed in school with the proper treatment and intervention.

And the student mental health crisis is only getting worse. Though the pandemic certainly drove noticeable increases in anxiety and depression, research shows it’s more of a continuation of a trend than a new one, especially amongst minority students.

By creating a sense of belonging before a student’s arrival, university leaders have an opportunity to prioritize student mental health while reducing feelings of isolation among their first-year students.

How Mental Health Affects College Students

The transition to college can feel like a culture shock for some students venturing away from home and their comfortable surroundings. And for the 37% of students who struggled with their mental health prior to entering this strange, new world of independence, that culture shock can exacerbate existing concerns. Mental health struggles can lead to:

Just last year, a study revealed that only about half of Boston University's faculty feel they can recognize when a student is in emotional or mental distress. While every campus is unique, there are research-backed, universal steps colleges and universities can take to address and support student mental health.

How Universities Can Help Students Stave Off The Freshman Blues

Although many colleges and universities have begun prioritizing student mental health, ensuring students use the resources and services provided tends to be tricky. Along with offering ample help, continuous communication and persistence are key to reaching those who are suffering in silence. Let’s go over some strategies campuses can use to make strides towards a mentally healthy campus.

Create Awareness From the Start and Keep the Conversation Going

Unfortunately, considering how many students struggle with mental health, it's not enough to simply have a resource center or send information out a few times a year. The stigma around student mental health still exists and acts as a somewhat impenetrable barrier to those seeking help. It takes constant communication to reach struggling students, so even if progress is slow, know that these efforts are making a difference.

For example, Northwestern University asked its students for feedback regarding their efforts to break the student mental health stigma, and then shifted their focus to incorporate real student testimonials in their outreach. Student actors read the narratives of alumni describing their mental health challenges as well as how they successfully sought help. These deeply personal, real-life stories resonated with the student audience who related to the situations, struggles, and concerns of others who’ve been in their shoes.

Make It Widely Known This is a Group Effort

College counseling centers can’t be the only ones promoting student mental health resources and suicide prevention. It's a group effort involving ongoing communication between students, faculty, and staff to ensure campus resources don't get overwhelmed. Provide student mental health resources that are both relevant and relatable to their concerns, normalize conversations about emotions and struggles, and keep student mental health a focus throughout the entire school year.

This can include but isn’t limited to:

  • Frequent emails and continued outreach
  • Promotion on social media channels, throughout campus, and in dorms
  • Trainings that include Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR), Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), and/or virtual simulations

To increase the amount of faculty who are able to spot concerns early, schools should also make sure training feels integrated into academics and student life. Lean on other members of the student body to be ambassadors and peer voices for all university efforts.

Training needs to be ongoing, and it needs to be followed up with resources and support.

Personalize the Student Experience

A university becomes a student’s home for four years (or more!), while students, faculty, and staff become family. Students need to feel seen for who they really are and not be made to feel like just another name on a long student roster. Universities must find solutions that allow them to bridge connections between geographically distanced incoming students before they even step foot on campus.

Target Specific Student Populations

A 2020 report from the Steve Fund found students of color are more likely to feel overwhelmed but less likely to seek mental-health treatment. While all demographics are susceptible to mental illness, some may be more likely to be impacted than others. Of the undergraduates and graduate student populations, racial/ethnic minorities, veterans, LGBTQ+ students, student-athletes, international students, and students on scholarship or financial aid tend to be especially vulnerable.

Ensure that university staff know how to support these students and help them build meaningful connections with one another on campus. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging efforts need to be embedded in the university culture campus-wide.

Make Student Mental Health a Priority

Shining a bright and consistent spotlight on student mental health awareness is just one of the changes universities need to make to keep students healthy, engaged, and enrolled. Universities must also foster more meaningful conversations and connections for their incoming students prior to their arrival on campus.

BrightCrowd’s digital welcome books help universities create that sense of community and belonging among incoming first-year students. And beyond bridging strong connections between students, universities use the data collected to learn more about the incoming students to personalize their experiences. Schools can strategically choose the questions included to elicit the most meaningful and actionable responses, while special features like name pronunciation help faculty welcome students in a way that shows genuine care and support.

Interested in learning more about how BrightCrowd can help enhance the first-year experience? Contact us to schedule a complimentary demo today!

Keith Hannon