How Colleges Today Are Supporting Student Mental Health

“Why are we ignoring our college students?” a frustrated colleague asked me last week. With so much focus on social-emotional learning, trauma-sensitive classrooms, and student well-being in K-12 schools, my friend argued passionately that young adults need our attention, too.

The challenge is clear. In 2018, researchers who surveyed almost 14,000 first-year college students (in eight countries) found that 35 percent struggled with a mental illness, particularly depression or anxiety. Here in the U.S., college students seeking mental health services report that anxiety is their #1 concern—and it is on the rise.

With demands for mental health support typically exceeding resources, how are colleges and universities addressing student well-being both inside and outside of the classroom? The emerging programs, new online resources, and innovative approaches to classroom teaching described below may encourage and inspire you—whether you’re an educator, staff member, or administrator who wants to prioritize student well-being at your school, or a concerned parent with a child heading off to college.

Increased awareness from the start

Colleges provide orientation sessions on drug and alcohol use, sexual violence prevention, and other student health and lifestyle topics, so why not address mental health more directly? Many colleges are beginning to proactively share mental health information with students during face-to-face orientation sessions.

Approaches vary from traditional presentations and panel discussions, to role plays, short videos, and student testimonials followed by small group discussions. Here, students learn how to recognize mental illness symptoms, where to find resources and support, and how to talk to friends who might be struggling.


How Understanding Your Brain Can Help You Learn

Recently, a close friend’s niece was having trouble graduating from college. She needed to pass a math class to graduate but wouldn’t take it because she feared flunking it. A belief that she just wasn’t “good at math” was keeping her stuck in graduation limbo, unable to move on with her life.

I know my friend’s niece isn’t the first person to be cowed by a math course or some other seemingly insurmountable barrier to success. Maybe someone gave you the message that you weren’t talented enough to succeed in a particular field; or you just didn’t have the confidence to persevere when you struggled.

Now, a new book, Limitless Mind: Learn, Lead, and Live Without Barriers by Jo Boaler, explains what’s wrong with this attitude. Boaler, a Stanford University math professor, argues that people can learn just about anything once they understand how their brains work and how to support their own learning. Her book is a call to discard old notions of “giftedness” and to fully embrace the new science of the mind, thereby transforming schools, organizations, and workplaces into environments that support rather than limit success.

The problem with talent

“Millions of children, every year, start school excited about what they will learn, but quickly become disillusioned when they get the idea they are not as ‘smart’ as others,” writes Boaler. That’s because parents and teachers inadvertently give out the message that talent is inborn—you either have it or you don’t.

As a math professor, Boaler has seen this firsthand. Many young adults enter her class anxious about math, and their fear about learning impacts their ability to learn.

“The myth that our brains are fixed and that we simply don’t have the aptitude for certain topics is not only scientifically inaccurate; it is omnipresent and negatively impacts not only education, but many other events in our everyday lives,“ she writes. Even though the science of neuroplasticity—how our brains change in response to learning—suggests learning can take place at any age, this news has not made it into classrooms, she argues.

Some of our misguided visions of talent have led to racist and sexist attitudes, she writes. For example, many girls get the message early on that math is for boys and that boys are better at it, interfering with their ability to succeed and leading to gender disparities in fields of study related to math. Similarly, people of color may also have to overcome stereotypes about fixed intelligence in order to thrive.

How our minds help us learn

Luckily, Boaler doesn’t stop at pointing out the problem but also provides tips to help anyone, whether they’re math-phobic or worried about other impediments to learning, to create a new mindset.

1. Understand that your brain is always changing. “Every time we learn, our brain forms, strengthens, or connects neural pathways,” writes Boaler. This means that no one is stuck at birth with a limit on what they can learn. Instead, it’s the belief in giftedness and how that impacts the way teachers teach that actually hampers people’s learning.

For example, when schools practice tracking—dividing students into different reading groups or math groups based on ability—it can produce worse results for students than keeping mixed-ability students together. As research from Teresa Iuculano and her colleagues has shown, the brains of people who have been labeled early on as “learning disabled” can be completely rewired after a short program involving one-on-one tutoring. 


Four Ways Schools Can Support the Whole Child

Currently, our education system often focuses on a narrow sliver of children’s cognitive development with an emphasis on transmitting content knowledge, often to be memorized and repeated in the same form it was received. Lessons in math, science, and reading—and tests in those skills—dominate the curriculum.

While those subjects are fundamental, learning involves far more than merely acquiring inert knowledge in algebra or chemistry. Such a narrow focus gives short shrift to the ways that children need to grow and learn in their relationships, identity, emotional understanding, and overall well-being. After all, children are multi-dimensional “whole” beings whose development is complex and rich.