Christie Campus Heath Senior Advisor, Dr. Amelia Arria, Talks College Student Mental Health and Wellness at the NASPA Annual Conference

April 13, 2023

Christie Campus Heath Senior Advisor, Dr. Amelia Arria, Talks College Student Mental Health and Wellness at the NASPA Annual Conference

Amaura Kemmerer, LICSW 
Executive Vice President of Client Engagement 

Christie Campus Health was thrilled to be a gold sponsor for the NASPA Annual Conference held in Boston where Dr. Amelia Arria, Senior Advisor to Christie Campus Health provided a session on “Supporting College Student Mental Health: Creating Brighter Futures.” Dr. Arria is a Professor and the Director of the Center on Young Adult Health and Development in the Department of Behavioral and Community Health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

Dr. Arria opened her remarks emphasizing a theme of collective responsibility around student mental health and wellness. Every member of a college/university community has a role to play; supporting students is no longer the job of college counseling centers alone. Dr. Arria is well-known for her research looking at the long-term impacts of untreated mental health and substance use concerns among college students through the NIH-funded prospective College Life Study. In her session, she covered several major themes about college student mental health, summarized below:

Young Adulthood is a Unique Developmental Period

Young adulthood, typically the age range between 18-25 (to 28), is a period in a person’s life more defined by instability than by age. There tends to be high levels of autonomy, a high degree of exploration, and self-reflection about who a person may want to be in their personal and professional life. Individuals in this stage may be focused on their role, purpose, and meaning in society.  Since it is a critical time to build resilience skills and stress is inevitable, young adults need to practice and learn resilience skills. Traditionally, this is a time of fulfilling parent expectations, forming significant relationships, finishing school, getting a job and possibly having children. Young adulthood is also a time to take advantage of all college has to offer by gaining new skills, exploring creativity, networking, and strengthening communication skills.

Young Adult Mental Health: Key Research Findings

Young adulthood is the peak developmental period for the onset of mental health problems.  More students are coming to college with mental health diagnoses and mood disorders are prevalent, as high as 30%. Left unmanaged, mental health problems have a variety of consequences (academic, disability, role impairment). While mental health service utilization has increased dramatically, racial and ethnic disparities exist in accessing care. Substance use is a contributor, not just a result, of mental health problems and it is going undetected among college students. There is a bidirectional relationship between substance use and mental health disorders; having one can exacerbate the other.

The Continuum of Mental Health

In 1972, Dr. John Travis developed the “illness-wellness continuum” where optimal health and wellness were on one side of the continuum and disease was on the other. While considered revolutionary at the time, the model lacked nuance. A student’s mental health is affected by the environment, and it also affects their relationship to the environment. Given the role the environment can play in student mental health, there is new emphasis on public health approaches that suggest there should be a range of supports to mirror the continuum of challenges students may face in college including:

  • Everyday stress: Falling behind in school, being away from home, time management - none of these stressors necessarily indicate a person has a mental health problem
  • Adjustment issues: Things that may arise for young adults that feel unmanageable – roommate issues, problems in class/work or with friendships, everyday stress on top of adjustment issues
  • Unexpected life events: Illness, family illness/death, traumatic event, sexual assault
  • Mental health diagnosis: Can be present in the absence of all of the preceding categories, or everyday stress, adjustment issues and unexpected life events can worsen a mental health diagnosis

Influences on Mental Health and Wellbeing and Coping Strategies

A variety of factors influence the development of coping strategies in college students including individual factors (personality, family modeling, genetics), adults (families, mentors), peers and community and institution influence. Different coping strategies affect how individuals think and feel about the problems they encounter. Coping strategies can help students think about their problems in a different way; changing thoughts about a feeling is easier than changing a feeling itself.  Emotional regulation is a person’s ability to effectively manage and respond to an emotional experience and underlies many different mental health diagnoses. Interventions are available to address emotional dysregulation and seem to be an important consideration for impacting student wellness and other academic/achievement outcomes.

Building Healthy Campuses: It Takes All of Us

Building healthy campuses involves a variety of factors including:

  1. Enhancing Student Involvement
  2. Increasing Mental Health Literacy: Helping students understand the continuum, i.e., naming an adjustment issue versus labeling it depression requiring treatment.
  3. Bridge Academic and Student Affairs: Widely share information about the impact of mental health/wellness on student success with faculty/academic staff, enact sensible school policies, supportive syllabus statements, student check-ins.
  4. Increase Awareness of Resources: Create faculty/staff/student roadmaps of services that are easy to find and read.  
  5. Create a Whole Campus Sense of Belonging: Identify campus facilitators who can identify students at risk and with training can have meaningful conversations to route students to appropriate level of care.
  6. Utilize Performance Metrics: Utilize evidence-based strategies to support behavior change among students, monitor student and community progress.

More institutions of higher education are turning to population-based approaches to support students across the mental health and wellness continuum. Christie Campus Health offers a multi-model platform of support designed to meet students where they are in their varying mental health needs. Our complete continuum of care includes wellness, mindfulness, and resiliency programs alongside counseling and other mental health services. Christie’s 24/7 Clinical Support Line is also a resource for faculty and staff who may need in-the-moment consultation about a student of concern, which can support campus-wide efforts to engage faculty/staff in wellness efforts. Click here for more information about Christie Campus Health and our suite of offerings for colleges and universities.

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