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How To Help College Students Experiencing Mental Distress, Including Suicidal Thoughts

More than half of college faculty, staff, students don't feel prepared to help students experiencing mental distress, including suicidal thoughts, a new study shows.
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While suicide and mental health are serious problems at U.S. college campuses, many faculty and staff members, as well as students, say they aren’t prepared to deal with those types of situations, according to a new study.

Research has shown six percent of undergraduate students and four percent of graduate students seriously consider suicide during their studies, while 32 percent of students are dealing with mental health issues, like panic, anxiety disorders and depression. However, only 40 percent of those with mental illness seek professional help.

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There have been some approaches to increase the number of students asking for help, like awareness campaigns, in-person workshops and online courses, but that might not be enough. According to a new report by health simulation company Kognito, more than half of faculty, staff and students don’t feel adequately prepared to recognize students that are exhibiting signs of mental distress, including depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide.

Kognito based its findings on responses from 14,500 faculty and staff and nearly 51,300 undergraduate students in more than 100 U.S. colleges and universities who were surveyed over the past five years.

More than 87 percent of participants said that it’s part of their responsibility as faculty, staff or student to reach out to students who are experiencing psychological distress. However, the study found 60 percent of faculty, staff and students said they didn’t feel adequately prepared to approach at-risk students who could need help with mental health. At least half of respondents said they didn’t feel prepared to recommend mental health services to students, the report said.

The study shows respondents agree they need to help students in mental distress but are not completely following through.

“Stigma might play a role, but the data show that most faculty and staff feel unprepared,” said Kognito CEO Ron Goldman and co-founder Dr. Glenn Albright, who led the study, told International Business Times in an email. “That points to better education.”

The study found about 45 percent of faculty and staff said that in the months before the survey, they had been concerned about at least one student’s psychological distress, while approximately 48 percent of student respondents said the same.

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To increase the number of faculty and staff that recognize and approach those who could need help, Albright and Goldman said they need to build the skills and self-confidence to notice signs of distress, as well as leading conversations that connect students to resources. Practicing through role-play exercises, whether at a workshop or a virtual environment, and getting immediate feedback can also help.

Albright and Goldman say signs that faculty, staff and students should notice on those who might need help are extreme or unusual behaviors, as well as changes in behavior or appearance.

“Some examples would include seeming more anxious or stressed than a situation warrants, appearing suddenly sad or withdrawn, or excessive use of drugs or alcohol,” they said. “A student who stops coming to class, for example, is a student of concern.”

To approach someone who could need help, faculty, staff and students should be “curious” and should not be judgemental.

“It’s important to realize that it only takes a few minutes to save a life or connect a troubled student to support,” said Goldman and Albright. “So you need to start by being open, curious and non-judgmental so you can build trust, find out what’s going on and make a ‘warm handoff’ to mental health or crisis services, if needed, without making the student defensive.”

Goldman and Albright recommend these tips to faculty, staff and students:

  • Bring up what you've noticed specifically and stick to the facts.

  • Ask questions to better understand their situation, but stay away from yes/no.

  • Empathize with the student's hardships and challenges.

  • Don't become a confidant or attempt to make a diagnosis - refer the student to mental health services. And be sure to follow up to make sure they’ve followed through.

  • If you suspect the student is actively suicidal, you should not leave the person alone while you connect them to support. It’s a great idea to remind everyone on campus to have the number for campus mental health and emergency services programmed into their smart phone.

A list of other signs to look out for, compiled by the Jed Foundation, can be found here.

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