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Innovative Strategies to Address Student Mental Health

July 2023
Mental Health Strategies
Note: This article highlights the experiences of two United Educators (UE) members and doesn’t represent UE risk management or legal advice.

Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, Ohio, and Taft School, a boarding school for ninth through 12th grade in Watertown, Conn., are using no-cost or low-cost strategies to help address student mental health.

Student mental health is a continuing concern across both higher ed and K-12 institutions. Suicide is among the leading causes of death for college students, and 8% of full-time college students had suicidal thoughts and/or seriously considered suicide, according to a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) report. And more than 40% of U.S. high school students felt persistently sad or hopeless, 29% experienced poor mental health, and 22% seriously considered attempting suicide, in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Taft, Lakeland Provide Courses on Well-Being

Taft’s I Block program, required of all the school’s younger and newer students, has students and teachers meet in weekly classes to discuss health and well-being and encourage responsible decision-making.

Among the topics: identity, sex education, internet safety, healthy relationships, and substance use. Taft uses a peer counseling model. Students with years of experience at the school are provided with a lesson plan that they deliver. A faculty member is always present to support the student teachers as needed.

Almost all aspects of the course touch upon mental health, said Gina Ludlow, Taft’s Director of Student Learning Services.

Lakeland, meanwhile, recently launched Skills for Self-Care and Resilience, a voluntary one-credit course.

“One of the things we wanted to work on was helping students build life skills so we’re not just reacting, so we’re not only seeing students when they’re in crisis,” said Ken Browner, a psychologist at Lakeland. “If we can help students build their life skills, become more resilient, get the skills for seeking out support, for staying mentally healthy and well, we’ll be doing preventive work that’ll pay dividends.”

Lakeland’s course includes a unit on mental health and suicide prevention. The community college teaches students about signs and symptoms of mental health issues and disorders and about help-seeking behaviors. Lakeland partnered with the county’s alcohol, drug addiction, and mental health services board, which leads a suicide prevention module.

In a Spring 2023 survey about the course:

  • Over 90% of respondents strongly agreed or agreed the course contributed to their understanding of self-care and resilience
  • Over 90% strongly agreed or agreed the course contributed to their understanding of mental health and suicide prevention
  • Over 85% strongly agreed or agreed they acquired new skills and practices that have improved their well-being

Asking About Wellness Helps Address Student Needs

Lakeland also developed a Student Wellness Interest Form that provides students ideas and connects them with resources for immediate, short-term, and long-term assistance.

More than 250 students filled out the form in Fall 2022 as part of a wellness challenge at the school; those participating were entered to win prizes funded by state grant money.

The form provides a 24/7 phone number for students to call or text for immediate help in a mental health crisis. The form also asks students to identify emotional wellness needs such as self-care, stress management, personal counseling, meditation/mindfulness, and/or helping someone else. Students who mark these boxes, for example, might receive a customized email directing them to information about personalized counseling or stress management resources through Lakeland.

The survey form and information sheet also asks if Lakeland can help students with physical, social, financial, occupational, and intellectual/creative wellness.

“By bolstering their overall wellness, they’re going to be strengthening themselves to make them less vulnerable to mental health issues down the line,” Browner said. “If you have good relationships, for example, you’re going to be enjoying yourself more and providing a bit of a protective factor for yourself against mental health problems.”

Lakeland Provides On-Campus Relaxation Zones

In Summer 2022, Lakeland used grant funding to create two indoor and two outdoor relaxation zones for students to unwind and de-stress.

“At a community college, because our students are on the go so much, it really makes a difference for them to have somewhere to go to unwind,” Browner said. “It’s not like they have a dorm room to go back to so they can take a nap. Our students are very tired because they’re so busy.”

Lakeland’s indoor zones are in the library and the Counseling and Advising Center. The library’s zone has comfortable chairs, arts and crafts supplies, and meditation cushions. A librarian leads meditation sessions.

One of Lakeland’s outdoor zones has landscaping, a grove of trees, four Adirondack chairs, and two hammocks strung between the trees.

More Strategies to Address Mental Health

Based on their experiences, Browner of Lakeland and Taft leaders recommend institutions consider these additional strategies:

Consider Seeking JED’s Experience

The Jed Foundation (JED) is a nonprofit that works directly with high schools, colleges, and universities representing millions of students to create a culture of caring that protects student mental health, reduces substance misuse, and prevents suicide.

JED partner schools use systems, programs, and policies that enhance social connectedness and positive school climate, deepen student life skills programming, increase help-seeking behaviors, improve recognition and response to students at risk, promote well-being and access to mental health services, fortify crisis management procedures, and create a safe school environment.

Lakeland is a JED alumni, while Taft is enrolled in JED High School. Taft is participating in an 18- to 24-month program created to specifically address the mental health needs and social development of adolescents and teens.

Have Older Students Serve As Resources for Younger Ones

To help Taft’s newer boarding students overcome homesickness, the school’s admissions staff pairs new students with returning students, who offer support.

Don’t Ignore Diverse Students

Taft works to ensure students of color and/or LGBTQ+ students are welcomed, since these students may face challenges affecting mental health that other students don’t, Ludlow said. Weekly discussions about these students’ experiences involve Ludlow; Rachel Jacobs, Director of Counseling; a School Counselor; and Taft’s Dean of Community, Justice and Belonging. 

“When we look at what a student’s experience is, if there are extenuating circumstances existing around their identity, we are looking at that head-on as well,” Ludlow said. “We may be looking at how social issues are affecting a student. We may have information about something that’s going on in their home life. We really are looking at the specific issues that these students are having that maybe students from the majority are not having.”

Hold Regular Meetings to Better Understand Your Students

Regular communication allows for a 360-degree perspective on students’ lives, Jacobs notes. Taft holds weekly ‘Deans and Docs’ meetings with class deans for each grade. Attendees for these meetings include class deans, a representative from the Dean of Students’ Office, a representative of the Moorhead Academic Center (the school’s on-campus academic support center), Jacobs, the health center’s director, and the other three school counselors. 

In addition, Taft has faculty committee meetings where, quarterly, stakeholders meet to discuss student progress and support.

Additional Resources

Student Mental Health Course Collection

News Release: The Jed Foundation and United Educators Partner to Increase Support for Student Mental Health at High Schools and Colleges

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