After the pandemic shut down Duke University’s campus in 2020, politics professor Nick Carnes worried about how his students would fare, both educationally and emotionally. Wanting to help in any way he could, he added a simple message to his email signature.
“A note to the students,” he wrote. “Please let me or another Duke professor know if you have any concerns about your safety, well-being, or access to educational or other resources, or if you need to talk about something right now and/or if you know about it with another student who has problems. If in doubt, please contact us.”
Three years later, with the campus back to pre-pandemic normal, Carnes has found no reason to delete the message. “A lot of students will probably roll their eyes,” he says. “But you want them to have so internalized your willingness to help in a crisis that when you remind them of it, they find it kind of cheesy and ridiculous.”
Not long ago, it may not have been obvious that a public policy professor would be willing to talk about his student’s stressors and struggles. But these days, as teenagers and young adults report mental health issues in record numbers, Carnes is part of a growing trend.
Colleges have long offered on-campus health and counseling centers, but the demand for mental health support is increasing so much that many schools cannot meet it through traditional means. Rather than simply recruiting more therapists—a costly and difficult undertaking given that the U.S. behavioral health field is short of thousands of needed clinicians—colleges and universities across the U.S. are leaning on faculty, staff, and even students, to close this gap.
“The mental health crisis is significantly increasing the demand for services, and we have fewer people entering the profession and many leaving the profession,” says Sarah Reives-Houston, who runs a behavioral health program at the University of North leads Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). Expanding the availability of community support is a faster and more practical – not to mention cheaper – approach than training a new generation of therapists, and one that may ultimately be more effective, says Reives-Houston, because it “widens the net.” . “
Training of faculty, staff and students
UNC has coached more than 900 faculty, staff and students in Mental Health First Aid, a research-backed program that teaches people to recognize and respond to signs of psychological distress in others. Participation is largely voluntary and, perhaps not surprisingly, Reives-Houston says demand is highest among faculty and staff who specialize in “helping professions” such as nursing and social work. Going forward, she says, the school plans to focus its recruiting on departments such as business and science to reach more people.
The need is clear. In a survey of about 7,000 U.S. college students in the 2022-2023 academic year, 41% said they had recently experienced symptoms of depression, 36% said they had recently experienced anxiety, and 14% said they had experienced anxiety in the past year having thought about suicide. Another survey a few years ago found that 60% of students experienced “overwhelming” anxiety and half said they were so depressed that they found it difficult to cope.
Carnes, the Duke professor, admits that it can be daunting to help when students come forward to talk. “I am not a psychologist. “I’m not a therapist,” he says. “I’m always afraid: ‘What if a student asks me a question that I don’t know the answer to?’ But I had to overcome that fear because when students ask questions I can’t answer, I can still refer them to people who can.”
The responsibility of making sure students “not only do their best, but also feel good” shouldn’t stop with the campus counseling center, says Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist who recently became Dartmouth’s president. During their time in college, young adults acquire “the skills and habits that will stay with them forever,” Beilock says. “It’s such an important time to make sure students are equipped with the tools to help themselves.”
To that end, when Beilock took the helm at Dartmouth earlier this year, she unveiled a campus health plan that included mental health first aid and suicide prevention training for many faculty and staff; the creation of a new position of Chief Health and Wellness Officer; and a policy that allows students to take time off from academic research to care for their mental or physical health without losing access to campus while receiving financial assistance for health insurance if needed.
Even in elementary education, schools often act as “de facto mental health centers” for students, says Dr. Asha Patton-Smith, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Virginia. Students go to school almost every day—or, in the case of many college students, live there 24/7. It may be easier to provide care in this familiar and accessible environment rather than leaving young people in the traditional mental health system with its high prices, long wait times, and inadequate supply of clinicians.
Studies show that this approach works at different school levels. School-based health programs can improve adolescent well-being and reduce suicidal thoughts, drug use and risky sexual behavior, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to a report from the American Council on Education (ACE), there is now evidence on college campuses to support programs that teach coping skills and mindfulness, as well as regular screening for mental health issues.
However, the ACE report also notes that programs aimed at training laypeople in mental health support have not been universally shown to be effective in studies. After training, participants typically report more knowledge about mental health and more confidence around the idea of intervening when someone is in distress – but that doesn’t always mean that Strictly speaking Nor does it mean that the person who is having problems continues to receive formal care. “We do not recommend the complete abandonment” of these programs, the authors write in the ACE report, but they should not be the only solution for campuses.
Peer support is an approach that can complement these programs — and one that is used at schools like Washington University in St. Louis, which runs Uncle Joe’s Peer Counseling and Resource Center, a hotline through which students around the world the watch can speak with trained peer counselors. In-person office hours are also available during student-friendly hours of 10:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m., and program volunteers can connect students with other resources on campus or in the community as needed.
Get help from like-minded people
“Unlike traditional counseling, where you might have a counselor who is 20 or 30 years older than you, we are at a similar point in life,” says Mallory Leff, a senior who co-directs the program. “Being able to talk to someone who seems closer to a friend than an adult is an easier step for people.”
Bringing like-minded people together is also the cornerstone of the nonprofit organization Radical Hope’s program. The group trains students at dozens of colleges across the country — including New York University, Northeastern University and Delaware State University — to lead a free, four-week curriculum designed to help their peers learn self-care, social connection and coping skills . The idea, says CEO Liz Feld, is to help students improve their well-being and build resilience before they reach a crisis point.
“Many of the issues they struggle with should never progress to the point where they need clinical attention,” says Feld. “What they really need is to talk to people who have had similar experiences, who share their thoughts, fears, anxieties and excitement about this chapter in their lives.”
This also applies to Delaney Dardet, who is directing “Uncle Joe’s” together with Leff in St. Louis. “We can’t have the same experiences as someone else,” she says. “But just knowing that there is another voice and another ear to talk to on campus” can make all the difference.