By: Yael Kahn

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In a previous Said&Dunn post, we reported on the prevalence of mental health problems among graduate students. This is a topic receiving a lot of attention, including through recent pieces in The Atlantic and The Harvard Crimson. All of this work has highlighted that depression and anxiety are quite common among graduate students.

Unfortunately, similar trends have also been observed among undergraduates. College is a time of newfound independence, new opportunities, and new environments. These changes can also come with challenges. The pressure to perform (and conform) begins at orientation, with colleges encouraging and expecting students to make new friends, be compatible with their roommates, excel in classes, eat healthy, exercise, get involved in extracurriculars, and land an impressive summer internship months ahead of time. For some, this marathon is overwhelming and exhausting, not just initially but throughout the entire school year. While every student copes with stress differently, a rising number of students internalize stress to the extent that it produces depression and anxiety disorders or leads to suicide

During my senior year at Columbia in 2017, 7 students committed suicide over a period of just five months. This shocking number rattled the student body and became a common topic of conversation among my peers. In one way or another, we were all connected to those students; many of my classmates were friends, lab partners, or suite mates with these students who took their lives. And most recalled feeling completely unaware of their friends’ pain. Sadly, this phenomenon is not isolated to one school. Recent surveys have shown that 1 in 5 undergraduate students have contemplated a suicide plan. With rising rates of depression and suicide among college students, how are undergrad universities responding? 

In an age where almost half of millennials check their phones more than 50 times a day, many colleges are going beyond hanging flyers on bulletin boards in dorms and using technology to reach students who may be in need. The goal of these efforts are to create tailored interventions for students, connect students to available resources on campus, and educate students on mental health strategies. 

Here are a few examples of these innovative tools:

  • YOU at College. Colorado State University created a “student well-being portal” to reach students who are struggling with mental health issues. YOU at college is a personalized guide to help students navigate their college lives across three domains:

    1. Succeed: academic and career success

    2. Thrive: physical and mental health

    3. Matter: purpose and connection  

    Online, students complete several confidential surveys on their profiles allowing campus administrators to get a sense of where the students’ concerns lie and create complementary programming. The portal provides opportunities for students to connect to resources and mental health education anywhere and anytime.

 
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  • Bliss: Harvard Mental Health. Two undergraduate students at Harvard created an app that summarizes the mental health resources available on campus. The application prompts users with a direct question, “What are you thinking about?” and directs users to the relevant resources on Harvard’s campus. One of the cofounders, Caitlin Ner ’18 explains that Bliss is intended to “essentially take what students are thinking about and try to lead them to these resources without being too directive, but rather to guide them [so they] feel comfortable to do it at [their] own pace.”

 
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  • The Cornell Well-being Network. Cornell College has expanded its mental health resources to encourage healthy living and the mental wellbeing of its students. One of their innovative resources includes a telepsychiatry service. Students can access help at times that are most convenient for them and in the comfort of their own dorm rooms. 

 

In the competitive college atmosphere, these innovative resources are a major step towards monitoring and hopefully improving students’ mental well-being. This work is critical, as the number of students seeking mental health services is rising and, subsequently, counseling centers are feeling overwhelmed and understaffed with limited resources. 

College is a sensitive period when students may be especially susceptible to the adverse effects of stress, but also when they may be even more likely to benefit from prevention programming. It will be interesting to track the impact of these technologies over time to better understand how to reach students most effectively. However, these technologies have limits and universities must be cautious about not believing they are a panacea. While helpful, these platforms can’t replace human connections, which we all know are critical to serve as a bridge between students and resources and help people cope with stress. 

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