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Colleges Turn to New Technologies, Partners for Mental Health Support

Within the U.S. today, college students are one of the demographics most affected by mental illness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in four young adults ages 18 to 24 live with a diagnosable mental illness, and more than 25 percent of college students have been diagnosed or treated by a mental health professional for a condition within the past year.

Despite statistics showing that a growing amount of students are suffering from mental health issues, many refrain from seeking help. 57 percent of student respondents to a survey conducted by NAMI in 2012 said they did not access mental health services offered by their school, citing fear of stigma, no knowledge of available services and expensive documentation requirements among the reasons for not seeking out available aid.

Additionally, 73 percent of survey respondents stated that they experienced a mental health crisis on their college campus. These crises ranged from extreme feelings of panic, anxiety, and depression about life and school, to post-traumatic stress disorder episodes triggered by class content. However, when asked to rate their college’s response to their mental health crisis, 35 percent of respondents explained that their school never even knew about the episode.

More recently, in an effort to help students better cope with their mental health struggles, many schools are testing out and implementing new innovative forms of counseling, turning away from traditional one-on-one therapy sessions.

An example of a school making strides in this area is Northwestern University. The university currently offers “Breathe,” a website that aims to assist students in dealing with various forms of stress. The website is accessible from any digital device and allows students to access resources to help them manage stress, test anxiety, overwhelming emotions, and sleep problems.

As colleges search for additional avenues to reach a greater percentage of students who may be suffering, some have turned to external partnerships with nonprofit organizations as well. 

The JED Foundation (JED), which aims to improve the overall mental health of young adults, represents one of these organizations. Out of their various services, two of JED’s six signature programs involve working with colleges specifically to strengthen their mental health outreach.

JED Campus was designed to work with schools nationwide in developing customized programs and policies built upon pre-existing efforts made by the colleges. ULifeline is an online mental health resource center offering information about emotional health. The ULifeline site also provides a search option where students can see what resources are available to them on their respective campuses, and take a confidential “self-evaluator” to better understand their own mental health.

Based on anecdotal feedback from its campus partners, the JED Foundation has  witnessed an increased use of its services in recent years. 

“Through our work with JED Campus itself, when we are speaking with our contacts at our schools or speaking at campuses themselves, we do get feedback that there has been more of an uptick of usage for counseling centers and more students are seeking services than ever,” Diana Cusumano, a senior JED campus advisor, told The College Post. “We also get feedback when we are out and tabling at conferences or we’re presenting. We will have colleagues or people come up to us and start telling us about the usage on their campuses of students coming in and wanting services or maybe students who are taking more of a preventative approach.”

Cusumano said The JED Foundation believes colleges play an incredibly important role in supporting student mental health, especially as students adapt to new on-campus environments.

A newer JED program, Set to Go, focuses on the transition from high school to college in particular, providing information customized for students, families, and educators. In turn, Set to Go aims to minimize the amount of stress new college students feel while navigating adulthood.

During his freshman year of college, Nathan Lafferty, now a junior at California Polytechnic San Luis Obispo, struggled with this transition. After moving five and a half hours away from his hometown, Lafferty found little support among different groups for incoming freshman.

“It was a combination of a lot of things,” Lafferty told The College Post. “No one else from [my] high school went to my college. I couldn’t talk about where I was from. I joined band and figured I would instantly have all these friends, but even to that extent they wouldn’t invite me places or to hang out. But it was my fault too. I didn’t put myself out there. I didn’t make friends in the first few weeks so I stopped trying. I shut myself off.”

Situations such as Lafferty’s are examples of the types of stresses that JED seeks to eliminate.

However, as schools and organizations like the JED Foundation aim to better serve students living with mental illness through new innovative approaches, some students continue to report they do not find their college to be effective in responding to their mental health issues.

For Mitchell Schlickenmayer, a current junior at College of the Desert in Southern California who previously attended college in Iowa on a sports scholarship, this has been the case.

“At the end of my freshman and the beginning of my sophomore year, I was playing sports and taking a lot of hard classes at the same time and it felt like I was being really overwhelmed and it kind of just broke me,” Schlickenmayer told The College Post. “I thought coming home would make me feel better because I thought I was just homesick.”

Although both schools offered various mental health resources, Schlickenmayer said his reluctance to acknowledge his mental health disorder in the first place discouraged him from taking advantage of them.

“It’s still hard because its like admitting a weakness and admitting you’re not well,” he said. “I didn’t want to admit that I was depressed, I just said I was homesick.”

As these modern technologies and new partnerships aim to provide greater accessibility for many students, the effectiveness of online counseling methods versus traditional counseling methods remains inconclusive.

“We can’t say yet if something is more effective than the other because it depends on the individual. Where one person will really benefit from one-on-one counseling for six sessions, another person will benefit from group counseling for four sessions and another person will benefit more from tele-therapy or using a crisis tech line,” Cusumano said.

“We believe in having a few modalities available and that’s the way you can reach as many students as possible. But we are seeing some good outcomes out of the tele-therapy programs that schools are using.”

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