Everyone is worried about the mental health of the students. What can colleges actually do to help?
During a Friday session at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education, three researchers offered lessons learned from new research focused on eight colleges. Their main message was that administrators should start small, experiment with interventions, frequently assess what students think of interventions, and change course as needed.
Students don’t view their campus experience as a collection of offices and departments, as administrators often do, said Jennifer Maltby, director of data, analytics and planning at Rochester Institute of Technology. This should inform colleges’ approach to addressing student mental health issues, Maltby said.
Improving student mental health is as complex as raising a child, said Allison Smith, director of health strategy and outcomes at New York University, and both tasks require constant adaptation to meet to changing needs.
Two other key findings were that colleges should identify student demographics that are disproportionately failing to thrive, and that institutions should tailor their goals to improve the experiences of specific student populations, rather than trying to create a fix. package that will work for every student.
“For a trans student, that means being called the right name and the right pronouns in class,” Smith said. “For a religious student, this means being able to observe their religious holidays without being penalized.”
The researchers also found that having a “core team” of four to eight people working to change an institution’s systems was an ideal management structure.
It’s impossible for an administrator, such as a vice president for student welfare, to reach every student and make the necessary changes that can improve student mental health, Smith said.
At the heart of research
The research tracked Case Western Reserve University, New York University, Cornell University, Rochester Institute of Technology, Texas A&M University, Stanford University, University at Albany in the system from the State University of New York and the University of California at Los Angeles.
The study examined whether a concept known as “Triple Aim” – the idea that, simultaneously, a population can become healthier, healthcare costs can decrease and the quality of care can improve – could apply to student welfare. Smith is co-founder of the Action Network for Equitable Wellbeing, a new collaboration of organizations dedicated to improving student mental health that aims to expand the effort to more colleges.
The colleges involved in the study frequently collected data through a survey called the Wellbeing Improvement Survey for Higher Education Settings, allowing researchers to get a clear picture of what was working.
Maltby said an intervention at RIT focused on faculty and students. Three professors were encouraged to include statements in their curriculum saying they cared about mental health and knew college was tough.
Feedback from students was initially positive and the initiative grew. But when the utterance was included in the curricula of 30 teachers, the results changed. Students didn’t always feel that professors who included the statement in their curriculum acted in a way that showed they truly cared, ultimately causing students more harm than good. Maltby’s team later discovered that marginalized students suffered this prejudice disproportionately.
“We’ve been able to really step back and say we’re not going to try to implement this statement university-wide because we understand there are potential impacts to this for our students who are going be negative,” Maltby said.
While it might seem resource-intensive to speak one-on-one with students to better understand their lives and to collect data so frequently, Maltby thinks the study’s approach could work for a range of colleges.
“A lot of times people will say it’s not possible or we can’t do it that way, and I think one of the things we’ve learned, especially through Covid, is that we can do many things we previously thought were impossible when we have the will and the interest to do so. Maltby said.