Students are arriving on college campuses with more mental health needs than ever before. Educators and mental health professionals share statistics and stories of increased anxiety, depression, self-harm, disordered eating, and suicidality. Many campuses are working hard to respond, researching the problem and offering new programs to support students. But, the often undiscussed problem is that every student transitioning into college has mental health needs that often go unmet.
Over the past 8 years, we at Thinking Beyond Borders have been working with students in the college transition through our gap year programs. Our unique position outside the limitations of traditional higher education institutions allows us the opportunity to innovate solutions to meeting every student's needs. We’ve decided to share our approach to identifying and meeting late adolescent/early adult mental health needs in the hope of adding to the research of the problem and potential solutions for traditional colleges and universities.
It’s important to note that our programs are not designed to provide a therapeutic setting in which to address severe mental health challenges. Our mission is to empower and inspire students to address critical global issues. We developed the following approach not because it was our mission, but because our mission could not be pursued without also meeting these crucial student learning and growth needs.
The symptoms of student mental health needs described above are all too familiar to students, parents, and educators in secondary and higher education. Unfortunately, clear understanding of the causes of these symptoms is much harder to come by. Hara Estroff Marano’s post “Crisis U” points to a lack of resilience related to stress as a part of the puzzle. Vicki Abeles’ NY Times article identifies the competition for admissions to elite colleges as another factor. Julie Sceflo’s NY Times article highlights achievement focused parenting and social media in feeding an unhealthy pursuit of perfection. Dr. Madeline Levine points to the impact class privilege can have. Dr. Michael Kimmel illuminates the challenge some demographics face in shaping their masculine identity. At TBB, we’ve seen students struggle to shape their adult identities in a culture that raised them to define their worth by external measures including grades, test scores, college admissions, and extracurricular achievement. And, student mental health needs can also be caused by past or present trauma, biochemical imbalances, and genetics.
As if it needed to be harder, society then brings adolescents together at educational institutions in intense social environments dominated by peer relationships. In the case of college freshmen, this collection of students is largely 17-19 years old, entering a developmental stage where they generally push away their parents, rely heavily upon their peers for guidance, and engage in risk taking.
So, how do we define the problem of late adolescent/early adult mental health? At Thinking Beyond Borders, we assume every student has adjustment needs that are unique and dynamic. Given all of the above factors, it’s hard to imagine a student in the college transition who wouldn’t benefit from support in adjusting to adulthood, college, and the internal and external demands that can challenge one’s stability. Meeting those needs requires both a broad programmatic approach that reaches every student, and targeted support that identifies and addresses more specific needs.
We have two main goals that shape our approach to meeting the needs of our students:
For the sake of context, note that our one and two semester gap year programs are comprised of cohorts of up to 18 students and 3 Program Leaders. These intensive study abroad experiences include multi-country itineraries, cultural immersion through homestays and field based learning, and a rigorous academic curriculum. Within this context, students are generally exposed to greater physical and emotional stressors than they are used to at home.
As every student has adjustment needs, we offer structured support for all students in our core program design. Those supports include:
More complex mental health needs are crucial to identify and address before a crisis develops. We’ve integrated the following into our standard processes:
It’s safe to assume that every student in the college transition -- if not every late adolescent/early adult -- has adjustment needs. We know from experience that students and sometimes their parents can be “in denial” of mental health issues. We also have found that at times, they can be very good at concealing both serious and minor needs, either out of ignorance or to avoid stigma. Therefore, we believe it is crucial that our educational institutions, be they traditional schools or non-traditional organizations, strive to identify and meet the needs of every student, every day. We won’t always succeed in identifying and addressing needs, but we’re committed to looking for every opportunity to support students in pursuing stronger mental health. It may not be our institutional mission, but we can’t meet our mission without it.