How to Use Surveys to Support College Student Mental Health

The beginning of the fall semester is likely to leave many college students feeling vulnerable. Amid public health concerns, social isolation, and increasing financial insecurity, along with a national reckoning when it comes to racial inequity, many students have struggled with anxiety and depression in recent months. As coronavirus cases spike across the country, college brings its own unique challenges during a time of pandemic.

Unfortunately, students won’t leave these struggles behind as they return to college. In fact, mental health is often an underappreciated factor when students fall behind academically, take a leave of absence, or drop out before graduation.

At the St. David’s Neal Kocurek Scholarship Program at St. David’s Foundation, we support Central Texas students who are pursuing healthcare careers by providing funding, mentorship and advising, and a robust set of resources to help them succeed. This includes access to mental health counseling and programming focused on student wellness.

Building a support strategy for mental health requires a deep understanding of what our students are experiencing, and one of the ways we get that information is through student surveys. They may not be the most obvious tool for navigating a topic as sensitive as mental health, but they have proven highly effective in providing a comfortable platform for students to share. Read on to learn more about our approach and what we’ve learned along the way.

Understanding Mental Health Through Surveys

It’s all too common for students to struggle with mental health during college. According to a 2019 study by the American College Health Association, over 65% of students felt overwhelming anxiety in the last 12 months and over 45% of students felt so depressed that it was difficult to function. Beyond national trends, students in our own scholarship program were approaching their mentors with concerns related to mental health or stress in college.

Mental health support is critical for our students’ wellbeing and for their academic success. But we knew some students would be unlikely to voice their struggles or ask for help, whether due to social stigma around matters of mental health, lack of understanding around available resources, or simply discomfort sharing such personal information. Prompting them through a survey would provide a less intimidating way for them to share.

Designing Our Survey Approach

We administer two student surveys through GradSnapp each year, allowing program staff to understand the financial, academic, and personal factors that may impact college persistence. With this process in place, we took advantage of new customization features in GradSnapp to incorporate questions on mental health. To which degree have you struggled with mental health this semester? Please describe how your mental health impacted your semester. Discuss any challenges and successes specifically regarding mental health. What were some high & low points for you this semester?

These questions were mandatory to answer but we provided options for scholars to select if they did not feel comfortable disclosing the status of their mental health. While scholars could have easily chosen not to disclose for any or all the mental health questions, we found that they really wanted to share. As the responses came in, students were opening up more than we expected – and more students were struggling than we had realized. This was an effective way for them to raise their hands and ask for help. Prompting discussion around mental health also opened a dialogue with our students that went far beyond our biannual surveys. Students appreciated that the program was demonstrating an interest in their wellbeing, and this helped to build a greater level of trust with our mentors and staff.

Translating Insight into Action

In response to these findings, our support model has evolved to better address students’ mental health needs. Additions to our programming include mindfulness coaching, town hall meetings with a psychologist discussing mental health, and an onboarding session aiming to normalize anxiety. Mental health topics frequently appear on our student-facing social channels, aiming to reduce stigma and share helpful resources.

On an individual level, students struggling with mental health are assigned to dedicated staff for 1:1 engagement over time. The program has also introduced a service similar to an EAP, or Employee Assistance Program, to offer different types of support including counseling, wellness coaching, and legal and financial help. Should staff need to escalate support, they are able to refer students to a licensed professional through this service.

Even with our established processes, we recognize that this fall brings us into uncharted territory. Many students have been unable to access mental health resources since the pandemic closed campuses; college counseling centers are often under-resourced, while accessing support remotely has presented new challenges. Now more than ever, we must recognize and develop a nuanced understanding of mental health needs and ensure students know where to turn for support. Together, we can help safeguard their success, this semester and beyond.

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