Expanding Student Wellness Programs
Someone once said college is fun as long as you don’t die. Unfortunately, those words are becoming more poignant. While these years of transition, exploration and growth have always been challenging for students, US colleges are seeing a significant increase in the number of students who report to counseling centers with anxiety disorders and depression. According to the 2015 Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) Report, over the past five years:
- The growth in college counseling center appointments has increased 38%, more than 7x the rate of college enrollment growth, with Anxiety, Stress and Depression topping the list of self-reported concerns.
- Half of college freshman feel stressed “most” or “all of the time” and 60% feel underprepared emotionally for college.
- A third of students seeking help at school Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) centers have seriously considered suicide, up substantially over the last 5 years.
The reasons, of course, are multifaceted and complex. Kids are growing up in an increasingly fast-paced and global society, with new kinds of pressures that didn’t exist even 10 years ago. For example, virtually all college kids now use social media and 27% spend more than 6 hours a week on it. Studies have linked social media use with increased feelings of depression and envy, which may broaden pressure on students who strive for social as well as academic success. Growing awareness of the problems, risks and diagnoses associated with mental health issues may also reduce the related stigma so kids are more apt to seek help.
According to a recent American College Counseling Association (ACCA) Survey, colleges are responding to growing student distress primarily by increasing staff hours and accelerating referrals. But it may not be enough: while more than half of students now report feeling lonely or hopeless, two-thirds who are struggling do not seek treatment and on average only 1-in-10 students actually meet with a CAPS counselor. Some find support from friends and family, but the majority simply suffer in silence. In a recent Harris Poll, two thirds of college freshman said they tend to keep their feelings about the difficulty of college to themselves and over half said they found it difficult at times to get emotional support at college when they need it.
No one should suffer in silence but not everyone needs professional counseling. Social support from peers can help everyone and is a constructive counter to social pressure. We believe colleges need new and innovative ways to engage students so even those just beginning to feel emotional distress are comfortable enough to talk about their issues and know they are not alone. Prevention is key, and the sooner kids start talking, exploring and expressing their thoughts and emotions, the easier it is to find support and prevent small issues from becoming big ones.
Emergence of Anonymity As Enabler
With millions now using this and other similar apps daily (Yik Yak is estimated to be on 1,600 campuses), it’s clear students have become quite comfortable with anonymous sharing. The challenge isn’t getting college kids to engage anonymously, it’s getting them to engage in a positive and constructive way.
Despite its founders’ attempts to position Yik Yak as a supportive community, it was not created for that purpose and will always be tethered to its entertainment roots, which tend to evoke locker room humor or worse. A growing number of colleges are experiencing bullying issues and violent threats on Yik Yak. When this happens, college administrators struggle to find the right way to coexist with a community in which they have no meaningful voice.
But anonymity isn’t the problem and doesn’t have to be the enemy; anonymity is the enabler that helps kids open up and say what’s on their minds. The problem comes when anonymity is used purely for entertainment. A big stage for anonymous entertainment naturally pushes against moral boundaries, especially in a community of freshly independent young adults already testing limits and experimenting with new behaviors. And with attention garnered through votes as the main motive, it’s not hard to see how sarcasm can lead to brutal honesty can lead to just plain brutal behavior.
Meeting Students Where They Are
By extending their student wellness initiatives into the convenient and familiar anonymous online environment students find appealing, schools can encourage kids to overcome stigma and talk more openly about personal issues while surrounded and supported by their peers. If done in a community dedicated to the emotional wellness of college students, where colleges have a meaningful voice, the result is bound to have a far more positive impact for both students and schools.