Are You Prepared to Respond to Students’ Mental Health Issues?

I’m the daughter of a psychiatric social worker. Conversations about mental health issues – especially acute cases (like a client who ate cigarettes or an ER patient who consumed a bottle of Clorox) – were not uncommon at mealtimes growing up. For nearly my entire life my dad worked at a county clinic (which later privatized) while also serving on-call for the local hospital. He had a pager (yes, this was the 90s) which beeped when the emergency room needed him to come in to conduct a psychiatric evaluation. More often than not he wasn’t called out, and we joked about his pretty sweet gig: “sleeping for dollars.”

Until recently. Within the last ten year or so, there has not been a single night during which my dad has slept for dollars. He’s been called out – often more than once or all night long – every time he’s been on-call. While we can debate the reasons why, no one will argue the fact that mental health issues are on the rise in our local communities and on our college campuses today. If we want to be prepared to serve our current students, we need far more knowledge and skills than what I picked up at the dinner table growing up.

On many campuses the demand for counseling services far exceeds the professional help available. Colleges and universities across the nation are looking for creative ways to provide students with more access to care while also working within the limits of their budgets and personnel. Faculty and staff without formal counseling degrees or licenses can no longer rely on those who do to solely meet the demands of students in distress. If we want to care for students in this present moment, we must see ourselves as “allied professional counselors” and get the training we need to be effective helpers.

Whether you work in college ministry, student affairs, or as a faculty member, here are some practical suggestions for preparing to serve students and their mental health needs:

Caring for students and their mental health is a shared objective. No matter our role, we’re not in this alone, nor should we try to be. Caring for students’ mental health creates a beautiful opportunity to “soften silos” across campus, departments, or college ministry tribes as we collaborate towards a shared end. It’s incredibly important to know when and where to make referrals to professionals. At the same time, when we refer a student, it doesn’t mean we drop them or stop caring. As a college ministers, my staff team and I would often make referrals; however, we continued to meet with and disciple students while they also met regularly with a trained therapist. In some cases, students chose to give us access to the information discussed in counseling sessions so we could all work together in helping the student become as healthy as possible. Because students often have touchpoints with caring individuals across different functional areas on campus, many colleges have “care teams” who come together to discuss and create a shared plan for helping the student. We are not alone. As we build trusted relationships across campus and the community, the better prepared we will be serve our students.

Though we’re not alone, college ministers and student development professionals are often first responders to mental health issues and crisis. As students build relationships with us and share their dilemmas, it’s likely that we may be the first to know about a serious issue (even before a roommate, parent, or professor). As we minister on the front lines, it’s crucial that we’re equipped with mental health first aid training. If you don’t already have this training, check into the next offering on your campus or in your community (or go here).

We need to know how to recognize and respond to potential warning signs of mental health issues, and to know when, how, and where to refer. We should

  • Know when to call the police or 911
  • Have an updated list of licensed on-campus and/or community counselors
  • Understand confidentiality (what it is and what it not, given our roles)
  • Know that all student affairs professionals are mandated reporters
  • Know who our Title IX officers are on campus

Let’s commit to equipping ourselves so we can better resources our students.

On one hand there are more students seeking services than ever before, but on the other hand there are far too many students suffering in silence. Students need to know they’re not alone. As someone dedicated to preparing students for life after college, it’s my deep hope that struggling students seek help before they graduate. Issues that present themselves in college may become more complex during the transitional time of leaving college. And, after graduation, students might find themselves with far less support.

We can help normalize mental health issues for our students by dealing with our biases as well as sharing the stories of those who have battled issues and found help. For example, each year (at multiple points) we would bring a panel of recent alumni before our current students. One year, a recent graduate shared some of her mental health struggles post-college and how a professional counselor helped her tremendously. This opened the door for another student in the room to come forward with her issues; she asked for a referral that night, and started getting the help she needed.

Every student should have access to the help they need. The more we collaborate and equip ourselves the better opportunity we have to serve students and their mental health issues. Few issues are matters of life and death. This could be one of them. So, let’s continue to “wake up” to the moment around us (literally, as in the case of my dad), and get what we need to love and serve our students.

What have you done to prepare yourself to serve students and their mental health issues?

What questions does this topic raise for you in your context?

This article is influenced by those who have shaped my understanding of mental health issues and counseling college students: Roger Young, Eric Wessel, Katie Tenny, Bec Shepski, Amy Solmon, Caleb P. Thompson, and the students I have journeyed with over the years. I also referred to Helping College Students by Amy Reynolds and this article, Distress Signals, in Messiah College’s Bridge Magazine (Winter 2018 Edition).  h

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