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Many high school seniors are anxiously awaiting admissions decisions from their dream colleges. Some will have hard choices to make about where to spend the next phase of their education.

Much has been written about how to choose the right college, along with annual lists that rate and compare different schools. These great resources, however, too often do not address a central, vital element: mental health. This is the factor given the least amount of consideration in college decision-making, yet it is essential to many students’ success in college and beyond.

Here’s why: Over 40 percent of college students experience depression. Over a third experience anxiety. One in eight experience thoughts of suicide.

These trends paint a challenging picture for young adults. And we have yet to fully realize the effects of the isolation and disruption that the pandemic has caused.

As high school seniors contemplate their college choices, the specific causes of the mental health crisis are less important than how colleges actually address it.

Fortunately, many campuses have started to prioritize student mental health by building programs and systems to support all students. Young people living away from home for the first time and enduring the new stress of higher education need and deserve all the support they can get. The relationship between student mental health and academic success is well-documented, as students with mental health disorders are more likely to have lower GPAs and are more likely to end their education.

Related: College students to administrators: Let’s talk about mental health

Every other year, Active Minds, a nonprofit that promotes mental health awareness and education for young adults, recognizes colleges that demonstrate an investment in student mental health with our Healthy Campus Award. This year, we recognized five campuses, of a range of sizes, from across the country. After nearly a decade of giving out these awards, we have learned a great deal about what campuses can do to help students.

That’s why we have come up with a list of questions that students and their families should ask about the colleges that students are considering:

Does the school make a clear, specific commitment to address student mental health in its strategic plan or mission ? If a school prioritizes student mental health, it should be easy to see. Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, for example, has a strong institutional commitment to supporting student mental health. In 2018, the Stevens Board of Trustees approved a plan to foster positive student mental health and combat suicide. The following year, the college’s president established a mental health task force. They brought together stakeholders from the community to consider best practices and creative ideas to encourage students to seek support from mental health professionals.

Does the campus address mental health as a part of its approach to other aspects of student health? Mental health is not just an add-on or stand-alone concern. Done effectively, student mental health support is an integrated part of the university community. For example, at Virginia Tech, the counseling center has an open relationship with academic advisers, which helps to break down barriers to care. There are counselors embedded in the academic departments, and the school has reimagined its residential life program to highlight well-being, diversity and inclusion. This approach helps emphasize the connection that student mental health should have across the campus.

Does the campus champion student voices as part of its approach to mental health? Students are the foundation of strong institutions, and their voices and ideas can create lasting change. Beginning in 2015, Auburn University established a mental health task force with student, faculty, staff and administrator representatives that seeks to understand the mental health needs of its students. By listening to students and addressing their needs, Auburn dramatically improved its approach to mental health. Today over 80 percent of students agree that Auburn makes student mental health and well-being a priority.

There is no single approach that works well for all colleges. We have been struck by the variety of innovation and creativity that we have seen. Fundamentally, colleges that address mental health successfully make the work a prominent part of their mission, integrate mental health across the campus and elevate student voices.

As students finalize their college decisions, they should ask current students, alumni, faculty and administrators these key questions. Where there are clear answers, the campuses are likely to be places where the students and the people who love them can be confident that mental health is a priority.

There are lots of important factors when choosing a college. Choosing a school with the courage and foresight to take mental health seriously may prove to be more important to a student’s future than their major or GPA.

It’s time for more colleges and universities to model the promising practices of these Healthy Campus Award winners, and for mental health to be an item on every student’s list of key factors in choosing a college.

Alison Malmon is the founder and executive director of Active Minds, the nation’s premier nonprofit organization supporting mental health awareness and education for young adults. Alison formed the organization in 2003 as a 21-year-old, following the suicide of her brother and only sibling, Brian.

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Letters to the Editor

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  1. Improving mental health services in colleges is important. However, why only focus on mental health problems at colleges? Research from the National Institute of Mental Health shows that Mental Health problems are common in all persons age 19 to 25. In addition, it is far more prevalent in persons age 13 to 18. This is when students are in secondary school. It is also getting worse for teens. On April 23 The New York Times reported that teen suicide rates have increased by 60% since 2007 and hospitalizations have also increase.

    Mental health can be seen as the most common health issue for persons age 13 to 18. All secondary school students should be assumed to either have mental health issues or be in contact with others who have problems.

    The Health curriculum in secondary schools must put more emphasis on mental health perhaps including material on the following facts:

    • The Stigma of mental health – Most people do not seek treatment. Common signs of mental illness like anger fear, worry and sadness are too often seen as weakness or character flaws not as a need for care.

    • Common Mental Health Problems- Students should understand the symptoms and prevalence of mental health problems at different age groups so they can identify potential problems in themselves and others.

    • Diagnostic difficulty – Unlike with physical illness, mental illness does not have conclusive diagnostic tools like X-Rays or blood tests. Diagnosing mental illness can be time consuming and is often subject to error or interpretation. People can have emotional issues that are not considered mental illness.

    • Mental Health in Families – Families can be a negative influence. Parents may have long-term mental health issues. Teens may be exposed to repeated destructive messages from friends and family. Some mental health issues may be hereditary.

    • Natural Brain changes in Adolescence – The human brain biologically changes. It grows between age 14 and 25 then declines slowly after age 25. This affects various capabilities. It allows many people to grow out of mental illness naturally as they mature to age 25.

    • Preventative care in persons under age 25 – The undeveloped teen brain can suffer long term damaged before it reaches full maturity by things like head injuries, poor sleep habits, and substance use.

    • Mental Health Emergencies – Students should be taught examples of mental health emergencies in themselves and others and learn how to respond to them rapidly.

    • Thinking behind Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – (CBT) – This widely used therapy links destructive emotions to unrealistic thoughts and careless behaviors. While no substitute for therapy, students can benefit by learning to identify unconstructive thoughts and behaviors that can lead to destructive emotions.

    Besides this education, some researchers believe that mental health professionals in secondary schools are too passive and should conduct more outreach. They believe that secondary schools should not await for referrals for mental health services but assume all teens are susceptible to mental health issues

    These efforts are no substitute for providing good mental health services in college. Having strong mental health programs in secondary schools should prepare students to manage themselves and be a more positive influence on others after school.

  2. The need for mental health services and professionals among postsecondary institutions is a critical part of not only student success but individual success as well. The shift that happens when someone transitions from high school to a higher education institution can be one of the biggest in their life. Many factors contribute to this dynamic including but not limited to them being away from home for the first time, coming from a first-generation household, or feeling an independent sense of self for the first time. All these factors contribute to a person’s physical and mental well-being and this transitionary period may be the first time they experience support for their mental health. In some households, the topic of mental health and others may be considered taboo due to the lack of knowledge, opinions, or biases which oftentimes restrict persons from being forthcoming about what they are struggling with. If the institution advocates for mental health and they can make its students feel this sense of advocacy, then students will be able to find more than academic success.

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