How universities can support student mental health and wellbeing

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Razan Roberts, Senior Director, Strategic Engagement and Communication, Salesforce.org


  • The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in mental health struggles among many students.
  • Education institutions should respond to the mental health and wellbeing issues faced by students.
  • 70% of university presidents see student mental health as their most pressing issue.

Mental health and wellbeing issues on university campuses are on the rise. In just six years, student anxiety in higher education institutions jumped from 17% to 31%, according to a study by the Healthy Minds Network and the American College Health Association. The COVID-19 pandemic brought the issue to the forefront. University students, in 2020, reported rapid spikes in anxiety and depression, with 60% of students saying the pandemic has made it harder to access mental health care.

Globally, the story isn’t any different. In 2020 Salesforce.org surveyed higher education students and staff in 10 countries, including the UK, USA, Netherlands, France, Spain, Australia and Nordic countries. 76% of students surveyed said they struggle to maintain their wellbeing, as does 73% of staff.

According to a Healthy Minds survey, students struggling with mental health issues are twice as likely to drop out. Research suggests that the ongoing mental health crisis is likely to affect student retention rates and lead to a decline in student engagement. To address this, education institutions have to show a true culture of care.

Educational outcomes and mental health challenges

Wellbeing issues are often multifaceted for students and staff. Issues include family problems, financial difficulties, feelings of isolation, social pressures, anxiety, and studying stress.

While higher education leaders have put measures in place to help stem the tide, much more needs to be done. Luckily, for many university leaders, this is a top priority issue. The American Council on Education reports that 70% of university presidents say their most pressing issue is student mental health. The mental health of faculty and staff are also a chief concern. Among staff, pandemic-induced hiring freezes, furloughs, and layoffs are causing burnout. Many faculty have even stated that the pandemic has caused them to think about retiring early or leaving teaching altogether.

Innovative ways to boost wellbeing among students

To allow students to thrive academically, leaders agree that they should promote wellness and foster campus cultures that prioritise wellbeing as a value. Similarly, work is being done remove stigmas behind mental health issues.

Campuses that show dedication to student wellbeing can help increase academic performance, retention, and graduation rates. University students who have a greater sense of wellbeing and belonging, tend to have higher motivation, increased self-confidence, higher levels of engagement and achievement. So too, they show better cultural awareness, enhanced critical thinking, higher levels of community service, and are more likely to be sympathetic citizens.

Here are a few ways in which mental health and wellness programmes can propel institutions forward:

– Raising awareness and addressing stigma: Leadership can reduce barriers of access to mental health support facilities, while destigmatizing the need to seek mental health support. Here, integrated peer-to-peer programs and student-led outreach programmes can open up conversations to better understand and support learner needs. These can also help students emphathize with each other, to value share similar experiences, and raise awareness concerning available mental health resources.

– Creating and designing a culture for wellbeing: Institutions should hire more counsellors to address the student mental health crisis. Organizations like NASPA recommend upstream solutions, including teaching programmes focussed on resiliency, stress management, and other behavioural challenges. These may help prevent downstream problems. Student wellness centres at Wake Forest University and Ohio State University have developed models that ensure student wellbeing on multiple levels, including the emotional, physical, social, intellectual, and financial dimensions.

– Digital mental health services: Technology solutions, like smartphone apps, make advisors more accessible. Through these, students can reach out and are more likely to seek assistance.

– Personalization and belonging: Surveys have shown that students value online communities as crucial to mental health and adaptation needs during the pandemic. Almost 30% said online communities create a sense of belonging to their institution, while 25% said online communities support their wellbeing. Students note that receiving personalized communication shows that their institutions cared about their success.

– Conduct continuous surveys and assessments: Mental health support staff and faculty should be empowered with platforms to conduct online wellbeing checks. Simple quizzes emailed to students can help the institution determine the stress levels of students, while learning what works, what doesn’t and what the way forward should look like.

– Measure Success: Technology can also help with tracking data and analytics. Data solutions can enable equity and foster belonging to properly measure the success of mental health programmes on campuses.

UpLink – World Economic Forum, in partnership with UNICEF and Salesforce, recently launched a challenge calling for innovative solutions that bring mental wellbeing and resilience to every 15 to 24 year-old across the globe.

Check out this short video for more details and submit your innovative idea by 7 April by clicking here.

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