How do college students want to be engaged on campus about mental health?

How do college students want to be engaged on campus about mental health?

By Christie Campus Health Editorial Staff


“Life saving. My clinician is incredible.”

“Every time I called in everyone was trained well and very informative and helpful. Made calling in less stressful and felt like a safe space.”

These are actual comments we hear from students in our satisfaction surveys after they have accessed and benefitted from mental health support services provided on their college campus. As another school year is poised to begin, we spoke with a couple of college students to learn more about how they like to be engaged on this critical topic.

Our mini focus group comprised Zoe Behrakis, a rising junior at Boston College, pursuing her degree in Psychology; and Owen Chicos, a rising sophomore at Wake Forest University, pursuing his degree in Health and Exercise Science. Both Zoe and Owen served as interns in our offices this summer. 

How do you recall first hearing about mental health services on campus?

Owen: During orientation, our advisor mentioned the counseling center and where it was.

Zoe: Same, it was during a two-day orientation for freshmen. Truthfully, I feel it’s more effective to get to students before they arrive on campus. Anxiety on campus is such an epidemic; everyone knows kids get anxious or stressed easily. It would be great if students could schedule an appointment for the first week of school. And then the student knows they have that appointment in their back pocket, and it brings a measure of comfort. If you wait until you’re already on campus, and you go to the counseling center to make an appointment only to learn there’s a three week wait, it makes things much worse.  

Owen: There really is a lot of information provided during orientation and while that’s a good place to start, because there is so much information, it’s hard to retain all of it. 


So, what is the best way to sustain that messaging, to engage a student around mental health services? 

Zoe: It’s a little bit of everything. I would say emails are effective because we all have to check it. After that, any form of social media that students are using, like Instagram, but then you have to follow that specific account, and not everyone does it. I’m not sure students are following a school’s counseling center on social media; there’s a better chance they are following the main accounts. 

Owen: Emails are good, especially during the school year, because you’re checking email two or three times a day, and once or twice on the weekends. The odds are you are going to see the email because everyone checks it to stay on top of everything. Social media is good; every kid our age is going to be on Instagram at some point, so if you follow the account, you’ll be exposed to the messaging there too. 

But going back to email: we get a lot of them, especially during the school year, whether it’s general news about the school, or something from our professor about assignments and grades. So, while email is a good channel for students, they have to be concise and to the point. What you can’t do is bury the topic in the middle of an email with a bunch of other subjects.

I also remember seeing posters in buildings during finals week that said things like, “Exams are tough, call the counseling center if you need support.” I think that’s good, because you see it when you walk by. But as a student you’re always rushing, especially during finals week, you’re just rushing around with your head down, trying to get to class, and you may notice it briefly, but you don’t stop to read the whole thing. But all these things add up to creating awareness.

What else?

Zoe: Constantly reminding students of the services that are available to them in as many different ways is important. For example, texts would be effective, because you don’t know how many people check and read their email, but everyone checks their text. 

I also think talking about mental health, doing those basic check ins, could happen during the regular floor meetings that happen in dorms. Make sure the RAs are checking in on the kids on their floor. Those meetings are usually mandatory anyway, and it doesn’t have to be a long-drawn-out conversation, just the reminder that as students, if we need support, these are the services we have and how we can access them. 

Owen: The one thing that would be a big turn off is making it mandatory to attend a meeting on mental health. 

So, the irony is that a required meeting is worse for your mental health.

Yes. It’s seen as an extra “Oh I have to do this, on top of staying on top of my classes.” It is seen as a negative in the student’s mind. It’s an extra time constraint on an already busy schedule.


We’ve come a long way with stigma, but is there still stigma in your peer group?

Owen: You’re right, it’s come a long way, especially among men. I think for men it used to be, “Tough it out, just push through it,” and I think now it’s different. But there are still kids who think, “I don’t want to be seen as struggling” or “I don’t want to burden other people” so they just remain quiet. 

Zoe: There’s this whole thing for asking for help, it’s embarrassing…. you want the help, but you’re too embarrassed to get it, so you let it sit.


So how do you break through that?

Owen: I’d break it down to a peer-to-peer thing. Everyone goes through their own stuff. If you’re talking to your friends, if you need help or see they need help, don’t keep it quiet. It’s asking a friend or a parent or whoever you are comfortable with, that you are going through something.

Zoe: Peer-to-peer is so important. You are more apt to do something if your friend did it too and had a positive experience. You talk with your friends about literally everything every day; but this doesn’t come up. It needs to be something we talk about all the time, not just occasionally. 


Our conclusions: 

  1. Like any good communications effort, you have to use multiple channels to get to as many students as possible. While many will read emails on the topic, some will find you on your social channels; others will notice you while waiting for the campus shuttle while others may see a digital screen on a monitor while cutting through a building. 
  2. Consider posting mental health related topics on your school’s main social accounts, and not just on the counseling center’s channels. Students (and parents) are more apt to follow a school’s main account versus a specific department or service that is unrelated to a student’s area of study.
  3. Remove obstacles to access. Don’t bury your counseling center’s portal deep into the institution’s website; make it easy to find. Better yet, if you provide a custom portal for students, put a link there.
  4. Just like utilizing multiple communications channels to reach a broad number of students, institutions should deploy multiple tools and services to support as many students as possible, wherever they are on their mental health journey. Some students just want self-directed tools and apps; others want in person counseling while others want virtual. 


Christie Campus Health partners with colleges and universities across the country to provide access to mental health support to students through a complete continuum of care including wellness, mindfulness, and resiliency programs alongside counseling and other mental health services.

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