Opinion: Supporting Students in Uncertain Times

Victor Schwartz and Nance Roy / March 13, 2017

These are stressful times for colleges and universities. Uncertain immigration policies, continued financial insecurity, and a polarizing political narrative have had a particularly harsh effect on a large portion of our higher education community.

The students most impacted by these stressors — foreign students, first-generation students, and minorities — are already more likely to feel isolated and less likely to seek counseling in the face of a crisis.

As clinicians in the field of young adult mental health, we urge college administrators to be mindful of the increased levels of stress and anxiety on campus, and to address these issues with strategies that are tailored to the unique needs of the students at risk.

Uncertainty — coupled with an inability to take steps toward solving a problem — is a well-established feeder of anxiety. Students impacted by the changes in federal immigration policies, including the last iteration of the travel restrictions, are desperately seeking answers from administrators who are still working through the details.

College presidents have been vocally supportive of foreign students though they stop short of giving answers they don’t have. This offers a thin salve for students who may already be in a difficult position emotionally, still adjusting to a new country, culture, and lifestyle.

International students are a group that we, at the JED Foundation, consider to be at higher risk of isolation and disconnectedness, key factors in emotional distress. They are disproportionately underrepresented at the counseling centers, perhaps due to the same cultural issues that make them uncomfortable seeking help.

The same is often true of lower-income and first-generation students who may be less likely to engage in campus life. With work and family obligations, they often have less time to join clubs and socialize with peers who can support them emotionally and identify problems if they arise.

These are often the same students who have been targets of the aggression and divisiveness of the 2016 campaign season, which was mirrored on campuses across the country. The increased tension among student groups, from religious to racial to political, left marginalized students particularly vulnerable.

All of this leads to the unfortunate irony that students whose emotional health is most impacted by the current volatility on college campuses are also those most likely to fall through the cracks in the campus mental health support system.

The JED Foundation’s model for addressing mental health and substance abuse on campus is predicated on two fundamental principles that we believe are extremely relevant to this current situation. One is that student mental health and well-being is a campus-wide responsibility; the other is that any successful strategy in this area must receive the full support of the president and his or her senior leaders.

The first principle speaks to the value of inter-campus cooperation.

When it comes to identifying and supporting students in distress, it is critical that administrators work together. The international students’ office may be dealing with a visa issue, but should also be mindful of that same student’s psycho-social state. That may mean reaching out to counseling or to the chaplain’s office as part of working through the problem.
Everyone on campus has a role to play. One of the best ways to reach students who are not likely to self-report is to create a strong message that there are many places on campus they can go for support.

For students of different cultures who may worry that they will be misunderstood or unwelcome, it has been helpful for administrators and faculty to exhibit subtle signs on their office doors, or messages on their syllabi, indicating that they are open and willing to listen.

“Gatekeepers” such as residence hall staff, academic advisors, faculty, and even fellow students should know how to recognize and refer a student who might be struggling. While the JED Foundation has a comprehensive gatekeeper training program, much can be done by simply paying attention and asking questions.

This is particularly true of faculty, who are most likely to witness problems and remain the most relevant point of contact for students. Acknowledging that they are on the front line, faculty appreciate the value of a “tool kit” of resources and some level of training, but it needn’t be complicated, time-consuming, or intimidating. Just taking three to five minutes to have a conversation with someone after class can be very powerful.

It is always the role of the president, provosts and EVP’s to send a consistent message of support for students’ mental health in both their words and actions.

This is especially true in times of uncertainty. Campus leadership should continue to de-stigmatize mental health and substance abuse issues by talking about them openly and consistently, and resist the tendency to cut programs in areas like wellness and suicide prevention to alleviate budget pressure.

Perhaps most important, presidents can set a tone that helps create stronger campus communities that welcome and support people of different backgrounds and cultures.