Student advocate- people sitting in therapy session

Minding students’ mental health is just as important as implementing positive programs for physical health on campus. “If we don’t take care of our mental health, we may not be able to reach our goals, maintain good relationships, and function well in day-to-day situations,” says Dr. Chrissy Salley, a psychologist in New York who works with students of all ages. For students, class expectations, new living situations, and navigating newfound independence can take a toll on their mental health and well-being.

Administrators, parents, and student supporters have the chance to play an important role in helping students access mental health services, both as a preventive measure and as a way to treat any issues students are facing.

Therapy is backed by a compelling arsenal of research

A study of college students who received therapeutic treatment for depression had outcomes nearly 90 percent better than those of control groups, according to a 2015 analysis of studies published in Depression and Anxiety. And the science-backed benefits extend beyond treating depression. There’s strong evidence that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help students better handle a variety of mental health issues and stressors, according to an analysis of more than 200 studies (Cognitive Therapy and Research, 2012). The researchers found that CBT helped those struggling with anxiety, anger issues, stress, bulimia, and other mental health issues.

Even though talking about mental health is becoming less stigmatized, taking steps to engage in a therapeutic process can still be confusing and intimidating for students. Here are five strategies for supporting students’ mental health.

1  Normalize therapy

Surveys show it’s not out of the ordinary to see a therapist—55 percent of college student respondents say they’ve used campus counseling services, according to a 2012 report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Few people look forward to therapy, but students should be aware that therapy exists to help them, not to judge them,” says Zachary Alti, LMSW, a psychotherapist and professor at the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service in New York. Support students by helping to reduce stigma surrounding mental health services. “I’d encourage students to keep an open mind and try it,” says Dr. Salley.

2  Make mental health just as important as physical health on campus

“Therapy is like physical exercise,” says Alti. Strive to promote counseling services on campus to benefit students’ mental health in the same way you may already be promoting healthy meal options and physical activity to benefit their physical health.

3  Meet students where they are

In college, students are navigating major life changes and setting significant goals—that needs to be addressed from a mental health perspective, according to the experts. “Therapy can be useful by helping people acquire a better understanding of themselves and develop healthy habits,” says Dr. Salley. Remember that “even positive changes can be stressful,” she says. “Having someone to talk to can be helpful, especially as you encounter new situations and people.”

4  Guide students to resources on campus and off

One of the biggest barriers for students can be figuring out where to start. Make information about counseling services offered on campus readily available and widely publicized—including exactly how to schedule a visit with an on-campus counselor, how to access off-campus mental health services, and what mental health services are covered by student insurance.

For students preferring to go off campus, provide resources to help them find local providers; for example, campus-recommended therapists in your area or a search tool on your school’s counseling website.

5  Reinforce confidentiality

Whether seeking mental health services on campus or off, students may be worried that what they share with a counselor might get back to someone they don’t feel comfortable sharing the information with, such as an advisor. “A therapist isn’t allowed to do this unless the student poses a threat to themselves or others,” says Alti. Because “a therapist’s effectiveness is dependent on maintaining trust,” it’s important to make it clear to students that their information and privacy will be protected.

Get help or find out moreArticle sources

Zachary Alti, LMSW, clinical professor at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service; psychotherapist in New York City.

Dana Crawford, PhD, individual and family therapist, New York.

Chrissy Salley, PhD, pediatric psychologist, New York.

American Psychological Association. (2017). How to find help through seeing a psychologist. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/therapy.aspx

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Protecting your privacy: Understanding confidentiality. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/confidentiality.aspx

APA Practice Organization. (2017). Psychologist locator. Retrieved from http://locator.apa.org/

Brown, H. (2013, March 25). Looking for evidence that therapy works. New York Times. Retrieved from https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/25/looking-for-evidence-that-therapy-works/

Center for Collegiate Mental Health. (2017, January). 2016 Annual Report. (Publication No. STA 17-74). Retrieved from https://sites.psu.edu/ccmh/files/2017/01/2016-Annual-Report-FINAL_2016_01_09-1gc2hj6.pdf

Cuijpers, P., Cristea, I. A., Ebert, D. D., Koot, H. M., et al. (2016). Psychological treatment of depression in college students: A meta-analysis. Depression and Anxiety33(5), 400–414. doi: 10.1002/da.22461

Hofmann, S. G., Asnaani, A., Vonk, I. J. J., Sawyer, A. T., et al. (2012). The efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy: A review of meta-analyses. Cognitive Therapy and Research36(5), 427–440. doi: 10.1007/s10608-012-9476-1

Kessler, R. C., Amminger, G. P., Aguilar-Gaxiola, S., Alonso, J. et al. (2007). Age of onset of mental disorders: A review of recent literature. Current Opinions in Psychiatry, 20(4), 359–364. doi: 10.1097/YCO.0b013e32816ebc8c

Martin, B. (2016, May 17). In-depth: Cognitive behavioral therapy. Psych Central. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/lib/in-depth-cognitive-behavioral-therapy/

National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2012). College students speak: A survey report on mental health. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/About-NAMI/Publications-Reports/Survey-Reports/College-Students-Speak_A-Survey-Report-on-Mental-H.pdf

National Alliance on Mental Illness. (n.d.). Mental health facts: Children and teens. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/getattachment/Learn-More/Mental-Health-by-the-Numbers/childrenmhfacts.pdf

Norcross, J. C., & Hill, C. E. (2004). Empirically supported therapy relationships. Psychotherapy Relationships That Work, 57(3), 19–23.

UC Davis. (n.d.). Community referrals. Retrieved from https://shcs.ucdavis.edu/services/community-referrals

avatar-img
Macaela Mackenzie is a graduate of Northwestern University and a freelance journalist for Self, Shape, Women's Health, and Allure, among others.