Theory of Knowledge

A unified approach to psychology and philosophy

Addressing the College Student Mental Health Crisis

Key elements to go into a solution to the CSMHC.

In my two prior blogs, I first described the evidence pointing to the current college student mental health crisis (CSMHC) and then I reported on the various possible contributing causes. In this final blog of the series, I outline some of the key ingredients that I believe are crucial to begin to address the problem.

My vision to address the CSMHC is to develop a resiliency initiative that functions to reverse the trend of mental health deterioration and fosters much greater levels of resiliency, well-being and adaptive living among college students. The following are key premises that I believe are necessary ingredients of an effective solution to the CSMHC.

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  • A systemic problem requires a systemic solution. The nature of the CSMHC is such that it will require analyses from many different angles and will require a system-wide solution. To address it we need to network together mental health experts, college counseling centers, student affairs, academic affairs, higher administration, parents, students, survivors of mental illness/suicide, and other relevant groups to obtain a holistic understanding and determine what would be the most effective approach at addressing the problem. For example, I think focus groups for systematically assessing and incorporating the point of view of these groups would be valuable.
  • Increase General Public Awareness. Mental health concerns remain frequently confined to the “shadows” and although public awareness is increasing, it remains the case that many are woefully uninformed about the nature of mental health and the CSMHC. As such, it is crucial to inform relevant parties and explore ways in which the issue can be effectively publicized without problematic consequences.
  •  Increase Education and Psychological Sophistication. Related to mental illness being a “shadow” issue, our society is confused about the nature of mental health, well-being, character and mental illness. This is the case for many reasons, including the fragmented, disordered state of psychology and the “disease-pill” model of mental distress that is pushed by the psychopharmacology industry. What is needed is education about mental functioning grounded in a clear, comprehensive physical, biological, psychological and social framework of understanding. Education should not just be considered in terms of flyers and announcements and programs, but should be considered more fundamentally in terms of the academic curriculum, including secondary and college education. That is, we should seriously consider systematically educating students about well-being, resiliency, character, and mental illness. I am personally developing models of character and well-being that I believe can be elaborated and shared with good effect in this direction. 
  • Effective Framing and Marketing. Precisely because mental health is a topic fraught with stigma, confused perspectives, and ignorance, it is not easily addressed in a systemic way. As such, it will be crucial to determine the appropriate frame and marketing approach such that the appropriate messages are delivered in a way that constituents can hear, understand, and stay engaged in a productive manner. It is precisely because of these issues that I believe it is wise to frame the CSMHC in terms of resiliency, well-being and enhancing adaptive living because these frames may be more conducive to messaging and marketing than emphasizing mental illness.  
  • Generate a Better Understanding of the Problem.  As noted in the second blog in this series, there are many possible causes associated with the CSMHC; thus, systematic and interdisciplinary efforts must be made at exploring and elucidating various possible causes and contributing factors. The goal here would be to develop a shared formulation and conceptualization of what is happening which connects deeply to the rationales for what changes are being implemented. In the context of fostering understanding, it is crucial that many voices are heard, many perspectives are considered. Thus, research and planning must occur to determine begin to develop a catalogue of possible causes that can be examined and researched for validity. 
  • Assessment of Current Students. Central to this entire enterprise is the assessment of students regarding their mental health, resiliency and well-being. In addition, any interventions or educational initiatives should be assessed for impact and such outcomes should influence the future course of action. 
  • Evidence Based Interventions. Numerous evidence based interventions have been developed for enhancing resiliency, fostering effective distress tolerance, increasing adaptive living, and preventing anxiety, depression, and suicidal inclinations. These efforts need to be researched, and feasible interventions need to be considered and woven together to offer a coordinated array of services and educational programs. I want to be clear that an “intervention” has a very broad meaning, and certainly does not only include therapy. Indeed, the CSMHC is not about therapy, but about increasing the mental health sophistication of the population at large.

I am personally just starting on this journey to see if the unified approach to psychology I have developed might provide a guide to start to address this crucial issue. I welcome thoughts and suggestions from readers who have ideas about these proposals or additional steps that might be taken. 

Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at James Madison University.

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