Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

How to improve mental health for college students

Stress borne from the pandemic has not simply gone away. Our students' wellness cannot be an afterthought.

Joseph M. DeSimone, chair of the Ursinus College board of trustees, at the inauguration of president Robyn Hannigan.
Joseph M. DeSimone, chair of the Ursinus College board of trustees, at the inauguration of president Robyn Hannigan.Read moreMargo Reed

Life on a college campus — finally — feels right again. As first-year college presidents, we’re inspired by the innovation we’re witnessing at every turn. But while colleges like ours are eagerly moving past the restricted experiences brought on by COVID-19, we remain acutely aware that stress borne by students emerging from the pandemic has not simply gone away. Their wellness cannot be an afterthought.

Data released on Feb. 20 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reflect a generation of teenagers in crisis, with rates of self-reported sadness at the highest levels in a decade. Reading this new research only strengthened our belief that colleges must put student wellness at the forefront of the college experience. If we cannot do that, we cannot fulfill our educational missions. Innovation is needed across all aspects of the college experience, but for us, equipping our students to handle the stresses of the 21st century is paramount. We have taken steps to realize this goal in different ways on our own campuses.

Last October, Ursinus College became the first liberal arts college to sign the Okanagan Charter, an international pledge with two calls to action: to embed health into all aspects of campus culture, including administration, operations, and academic programs; and to promote action and collaboration on health, both locally and globally. In 2022, Ursinus also founded a new division of health and wellness, becoming one of the first colleges in the country to unite athletics, clinical services (including medical care, counseling, and sports medicine), and health promotion (both prevention and advocacy) under one administrative roof, allowing an overview of campus health trends and enabling the college to comprehensively troubleshoot issues, particularly around student mental health.

With the charter as a guide, Ursinus has also founded a collaborative commission on well-being, designed to be a national model to address the intersections of education, economics, spirituality, culture, and society on student health. The college has increased its wellness staff, and will soon open the doors to The Hive, a central and highly visible landmark for Ursinus’ commitment to student well-being. The Hive will extend the campus’ health offerings in many different directions, from helping students alleviate stress by learning to manage their money, to the availability of a new peer recovery support specialist who can relate to students as they question their own substance use or mental health concerns, to new spaces for yoga and meditation. It will be a true campus center for a holistic approach to health.

Similarly, a new partnership between Widener University and The Jed Foundation (JED) aims to create positive, lasting, systemic improvement in mental health at the university. As a “JED Campus,” Widener will develop a customized strategic plan that will guide the university in implementing tools, strategies, and techniques designed to improve student mental health and wellness and increase a sense of belonging and connection.

The four-year partnership began with a university-wide survey to assess mental health and related needs, student familiarity with Widener mental health resources, and how to access and use those resources. The results are driving Widener’s decision-making on enhancing policies, programs, and resources to become a national leader in mental health and well-being.

Widener has also been developing a new program for student-athletes through a partnership between the counseling and psychological services office and Pride athletics that will pilot in April. “Check Up from the Neck Up” will include twice weekly, 15-minute skills workshops in a newly dedicated space called the WU Student Athlete HUB (Health Unity Belonging), where students can relax, talk, and reflect on topics that will include self-care, stress management, life after sports, and more.

Widener’s award-winning “breathe” campaign, which began as a student research project in 2019, has evolved into an ongoing campaign that promotes student awareness of mental health resources at Widener. Students can type “breathe” into a Widener page on their cell phones and reach a host of services through the touch of their screens.

If we truly wish to meet the realities of our current moment and provide the experience all students need to thrive, centering whole-student well-being in the campus experience is foundational.

We are calling on our fellow leaders at institutions of higher learning to adopt and prioritize programming that supports the healthy development of our students overall, so that we may truly foster citizens for whom the oft-cited phrase “mens sana in corpore sano,” or “a healthy mind in a healthy body,” is a reality, not an aspiration.

Robyn Hannigan is president of Ursinus College in Collegeville. Stacey Robertson is president of Widener University in Chester. Both leaders began their tenures on July 1.