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Business Officer Magazine
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It’s About Whole Health

Good health and well-being, says Kevin Kruger, are critical to student retention, academic success, and degree attainment.

By Karla Highnite

In the featured session "Mental Health Issues: Reducing Risks for Students and Campuses," Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, framed this topic in terms of student retention and persistence.

Typical triggers of student depression may include the death of a family member or a friend, divorce of parents, personal or family illness, homesickness, anxiety about an academic major or career path, fears about graduation, or financial worries. Layer on top of those factors potential incidents of sexual assault or other gender-based violence, or alcohol or drug abuse and it becomes clear that college students today face myriad pressures and distractions from their role as students, Kruger said.

In addition, more first-generation and low-income students are attending college today, and these students may not have the same understanding of campus services, are more likely to experience financial stress, and probably have a less robust family support structure in place, he said. And, today's increasingly online generation of students potentially faces an increased sense of isolation.

What Institutions Can Do

The stress from any one of this complex set of pressures can lead to depression when people wait too long to seek help, and this can adversely impact academic performance. "Students spend less time studying or begin skipping classes and then suddenly they fall behind and eventually may drop out," Kruger said. "The reality is that student health and well-being are critical to student retention, academic success, and degree attainment." Any touch point for a student experiencing even low levels of stress may prove essential in keeping a student enrolled and on track to persist to degree completion, he added.

Kruger noted that higher education leaders would be wise to think about and address student mental health not as an isolated concern, but as a complex set of factors requiring a multifaceted response. "Bottom line, many students with pressing mental health concerns simply will not graduate without our help."

Given the scope and interconnection of these student mental health issues, how can institutions best respond? There are some evidenced-based approaches that appear to be working and that more campuses are employing, Kruger said.

  • Better faculty and staff training can help pick up on early warning signals. Many times the signals emerge in a student's academic performance, with missed attendance and missed deadlines, which is why faculty play a key role in a larger intervention strategy, Kruger explained. Structured care teams composed of a diverse collection of campus personnel can provide a coordinated prevention response.
  • Some institutions are combining services for counseling with health and wellness centers, not only for administrative efficiencies, but also for service efficiencies. If a student comes in reporting a health concern such as the flu or sleeping problems, a health representative can inquire about what is happening with the student, and this can provide opportunities for a student to identify areas of stress he or she may be experiencing. Health and wellness coaching as an added service can also help remove the stigma of students self-reporting a problem.
  • The amount of time students must wait to have a health matter addressed is another critical factor in appropriate response, since the severity of an issue usually only escalates the longer it continues without resolution. For most institutions, staffing ratios remain a challenge as do budgetary commitments to student mental health. Some innovations on the technology front such as therapist-assisted online services-though not without controversy—do hold promise for freeing on—site counselors to address more severe cases, Kruger said.
  • Anything that provides opportunities for personal interaction can also contribute positively to student mental health and to retention and completion. In a day when social and academic interaction have migrated so substantially to online venues, providing physical spaces for students to engage with others in person can provide a lifeline for those suffering from loneliness and isolation.

"Because no institution will ever be able to hire enough counselors, a coordinated prevention strategy is in order to help students well before the point of crisis," Kruger said.

KARLA HIGNITE is a contributing editor for Business Officer.

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