Universities must shift from treating mental illness to promoting mental health

We must create spaces, resources and communities where individuals and groups can achieve optimal health through everyday activities, says Alan Cromlish

July 6, 2019
Mental health
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The current mental health situation in universities reflects the need for improvement. As has been well-documented, mental health issues have been increasing for decades. Some of the most telling statistics come from examining the past decade, during which the number of university students who considered suicide increased by 77 per cent. At the same time, diagnoses of depression and anxiety increased by nearly 50 per cent and 80 per cent respectively.

Universities’ response has been treatment-based, with an increase in wellness programmes, counsellors and medical professionals. While this approach has its merits, the figures above indicate that it is time to try something different.

Given the interconnectedness of individuals’ physical, social and mental health, I believe that the key is for universities to aim to promote health across campus in everything it does. This whole-system approach entails the creation of spaces, resources and communities where individuals – students, staff and members of the public – and groups can achieve optimal health through everyday activities.

For universities, it is essential to create top-down solutions by adopting the healthy university framework that suggests embedding health into campus culture, administrative policy, university operations, and academic mandates. These strategies are suggested by the Okanagan Charter which was the result of the 2015 International Conference on Health Promoting Universities and Colleges, and this sets the necessary foundation to promote health across the campus and the community.

Adopting this framework would entail two strategies. First, universities would embed health across their operations and academic mandates, such as increasing sustainability on campus, creating better spaces for students to study and live, and creating opportunities for people to develop academically, personally and professionally.

Second, universities would integrate health across disciplines, conduct research into mental health, and collaborate locally and globally on making improvements to their approach to mental health.

A big driver of improved university mental health is a better understanding of the students’ perceived influences, in addition to the medical records provided by counsellors and medical professionals. The American College Health Association uses a comprehensive survey to assess the health of students in the US, and it is available for local use. Universities should consider altering or adding areas to the survey that are relevant to students. Ideally, the responses would be filtered at university, college and programme level, providing feedback on student well-being to staff at each of these management levels.

In addition to the survey, the university should build resources that pertain to student needs. The concept of study ability describes three core areas necessary for students to succeed while at university: personal resources, study skills and study environment. Creating resources that can develop an individual’s well-being, time management, study skills and choice of study environment provides students with the necessary support to succeed, as well as build the soft skills that they need to succeed beyond university. Provision could be at physical locations, with support from professors and staff, but should also be accessible anonymously online.

Additionally, universities should work to embed these skills and knowledge into curricula. A standout example is Yale’s course on happiness, the most popular class in the history of the university. 

A big part of what makes a campus’ culture is, of course, the staff. They are in frequent contact with students and help shape their perception of the university. So, it is important that staff have the necessary skills and knowledge of campus resources to contribute to a supportive and health-promoting culture. A number of training programmes can be developed internally, as well as external vendors that provide training to identify and respond to signs of poor health.

While this is valuable, it is also important to improve empathy in faculty and staff. That will build trust with students and create the necessary rapport and dialogue to give students a feeling of support on campus. Creating a workshop that helps faculty and staff use their specialised university health survey to identify the issues that their particular students are facing would be immensely valuable. The workshop would occur at least once a year and would also ensure that faculty and staff were up to date about the resources available to students facing those particular issues, and in a position to encourage students to access them.

Shifting from a reliance on treating mental illness to promoting mental health is a long-term project. But if students have knowledge of and belief in resources to help them develop academically, personally, and professionally, the mental health situation on university campuses will surely improve.

Alan Cromlish is an EdD student in the School of Education at the University of Southern California and a consultant to Aalto University, Finland, on improving student health and study skills. He was previously an assistant professor at Namseoul University, South Korea.

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