Cindy Firestein, Simmons University
Neena Fink, Southern New Hampshire University
While advisors are not licensed counselors, they can support students who experience mental wellness struggles before referring them to additional resources such as counseling centers. With the approaching 2026 higher education apocalypse expected, institutions are trying to be strategic on what new initiatives they invest in to entice students to enroll into their institution. Some institutions are investing in new state-of-the-art residence halls and others are currently trying to stay afloat through the COVID-19 crisis. However, not all institutions are looking to increase their wellness resources for students. Academic advisors need to grow their toolkit to support their students who are overcoming wellness challenges while on campus. This article will highlight tools, initiatives, and resources college campuses are implementing across the US to better support students struggling with mental wellness that advisors should consider adding to their toolkit or advocating to implement on their campus.
One of the first things advisors should consider when working with a student is, what is the best advising approach to utilize? Adapting to multiple advising approaches is important since each student may react best to different approaches. There are several advising approaches such as strengths advising, intrusive advising, appreciative advising, and developmental advising. Developmental is one advising approach advisors can consider utilizing when supporting students that struggle with wellness. “Developmental academic advising recognizes the importance of interactions between the student and the campus environment, it focuses on the whole person, and it works with the student at the person’s own life stage of development” (King, 2005). Following developmental advising strategies, advisors should strive to support the whole student and watch for red flags student present so they can refer the student to additional support resources. Signs of depression, a mental wellness concern that impacts 20% of teens before adulthood, include” withdrawing from school and activities, feelings of sadness or hopelessness, anger, overreaction to criticism, poor self-esteem, guilt, and many others” (Pedersen, 2019).
Mental health is a critical concern impacting college student well-being, learning, and success. Data from the 2018-2019 report from The Healthy Minds Study (Healthy Minds Network, 2019) shows that 37% of college students surveyed report having had a mental health diagnosis, and 30% of college students having accessed mental health therapy or counseling in the last year. Student-facing higher education professionals have to learn how to identify and assess a student’s emotional wellbeing. Is the student connected on campus? Does the student feel a sense of belonging to a community on campus? Does the student have a balanced and healthy outlook of failure? How does the student cope with disappointment? Resilience, grit, and hope are only effective if a student is willing to look outside of the present situation to see the big picture. The one class, semester, professor, athletic, etc. does not define them.
Advisors may choose to complete a training on psychological first aid to add to their toolkit. When an individual supports a traumatized student by utilizing psychological first aid, they are working to help the student feel safe and comfortable in the moment. This will help the student feel less threatened, cope with the situation, and begin to feel safer. If an advisor meeting with a student in their office, they can assure that the student is safe, emotionally and physically. However, an individual should never make a promise that they cannot guarantee. Even if the student is currently safe in the office, they cannot remain in the office forever. Observe the student’s physical and emotional state before offering to walk students to their next class or to another support resource on campus that can continue to help the student overcome their traumatic event. (Firestein, 2019)
Advisors should strive to have their offices feel safe and welcoming, and to develop an environment that provides a sense of comfort for students. Allowing students to feel connected, comfortable, and safe is important when students are struggling with insecurities and emotional stress. “It’s crucial for adolescents and young adults to receive mental health care and emotional support. However, teens aren’t already eager to speak about their suffering. But when it comes to treating continuum of trauma, studies show that art and music – known as expressive art therapy – can calm the body’s stress response, which can help adolescents feel safer in the classroom” (Fraga, 2019). At Simmons University, the Office of Undergraduate Advising created a wall sharing tree activity. Each season the tree changes to have paper leaves, applies, or hearts. Students are asked a question such as – “What are you most excited about this semester” or – “What is your favorite experience in college” and write their responses on the paper leaves, apples, or hearts to share their positive experiences. The sharing tree has been well received by the campus community who enjoy sharing their positive experiences with each other.
The conversation around the importance of mental health needs to start early and happen often. At Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), the discussion around mental health and anxiety begins at orientation. During SNHU On-Campus orientation, new students are divided into groups by their major. During their scheduled advising session, students have to write out what they are most anxious about and what they are most excited about in the new semester. Students then crumble up their papers and toss them into the center of the group. Each participant collects a paper that is not their own and shares out loud. This experience allows for students to have a shared experience, typically acknowledging similar fears or hopes for the semesters.
Post University improved their counseling services to better support online learners. “The university also began offering mental health screening to students (online and on campus), which depending on the results, offer students suggestions for next steps they might take” (Lederman, 2019). Online instructors at Post receive special training to better identify students who are at-risk or a threat, and then instructors shares their concerns with a designated campus care/support team that assesses the instructor’s concern. Additionally, that instructor is encouraged to reach out to the student to offer potential support resources to the student. Tools include HelpPRO, 211.org, and having students complete “Reality Checks” assessment to personalize their experience (Lederman, 2019). This type of training would be beneficial to academic advisors that support online learners who have large caseloads and communicate via email often with their advisees.
One of the authors of this article is employed at Simmons University in Boston, MA which has a CARE Team in place. The Campus Assessment, Response, and Evaluation (CARE) Team seeks to proactively coordinate University support for students in distress, struggling with basic needs, experiencing unexpected crises or whose behavior raises concern about their well-being or that of others. The CARE Team also addresses behaviors that may be disruptive, harmful, or pose a threat to the health and safety of the Simmons community. The CARE Team is an interdisciplinary team which meets on a regular basis to ensure that students of concern are receiving timely and consistent support (Simmons, 2019). The CARE Team is another example of how institutions are utilizing their resources to flag and then support students that are struggling with mental wellness and other challenges.
To better train faculty and staff in identifying students who struggle with mental wellbeing and have suicidal thoughts, in addition to the CARE Team, Simmons University recently began offering I Can Help, a University Program to Support Early Detection, Mental Health Literacy, and Suicide Prevention. “Programs such as I CAN HELP are designed for students, faculty, staff, and other non-mental health professionals and are sometimes called gatekeeper training” (Mistler, 2019). When requested from the website, materials for educational use such as campus training are free.
To learn new ways to help students to thrive, advisors should consider learning more about Positive Psychology. The application to advising is that students can employ their intrinsic “strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger“ (Seligman, 2002). Advisors have the opportunity to connect personally and intentionally with students, cultivating a sense of belonging and community. By utilizing positive psychology, advisors help students to gain confidence in their strengths and unique attributes.
Below is a list of additional support resources and tools advisors can utilize and share with students:
As advisors adapt to best serve their students’ wellness needs, they must recognize that focusing on mental wellbeing as well as teaching students about the value of the higher education experience will now be a part of their role in advising.
Cindy Firestein, M.Ed., GCDF
Director of Undergraduate Advising
Neena Fink, J.D.
Senior Academic Advisor
Southern New Hampshire University
Firestein, C. (2019, June). Advising students who struggle due to traumatic events. Academic Advising Today, 42(2). https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Advising-Students-Who-Struggle-Due-To-Traumatic-Events.aspx
Fraga, J. (2019). How making music can help students cope with trauma. KQED. https://www.kqed.org/mindshift
Healthy Minds Network. (2019). The healthy minds study. https://healthymindsnetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/HMS_national-2018-19.pdf
King, M. (2005, November). Developmental academic advising. NACADA Clearinghouse. https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Developmental-Academic-Advising.aspx
Lederman, D. (2019, September 4). Meeting the mental health needs of online students. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2019/09/04/university-ramps-mental-health-services-distinctive-needs-online
Mistler, B., (2019). I can help. http://www.drmistler.com/icanhelp
Pedersen, T. (2019, August 1). Study touts psychotherapy as first-line treatment for youth with depression. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/news/2019/08/01/study-touts-psychotherapy-as-first-line-treatment-for-youth-with-depression/149097.html?fbclid=IwAR14wfMjp1tEDnsLhBsR4ZXizTRmy85TCfHqM9dR6Fuo7cslEMRTPbgw4AE
Simmons University. (2019). CARE. https://internal.simmons.edu/students/services/care
Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Authentic happiness. Free Press.
Cite this article using APA style as: Firestein, C., & Fink, N. (2020, September). Supporting students who struggle with mental wellness. Academic Advising Today, 43(3). [insert url here]