Student mental health: an integrated approach

Student mental health: an integrated approach

Most colleges and universities view mental health issues among international students as the exclusive responsibility of the international education office and, perhaps, any available campus counselling service. While this approach is generally acceptable for most mild mental health issues, it will not suffice for more serious concerns. There needs to be a much more integrated approach. What are the steps you should take in order to establish effective mental health management at your institution?

A proactive approach

Having an international student dealing with a serious mental health crisis on your campus can have a ripple effect, impacting other students (particularly internationals), various offices, senior administrators, and the larger non-academic community. By preparing your response in advance to such a situation rather than waiting to make complicated decisions in the midst of complex situations, you will be in a better position to help the student affected. A good place to start is setting up a permanent committee to assume responsibility and develop training programmes for staff. At a minimum, this committee should include representatives from the international office, student affairs, student services, the Dean of Students (or the equivalent), security, and counselling services. If your institution does not have its own counsellors, then a counsellor from the community who is familiar with your campus will suffice.

Reduce the stigma sometimes associated with counselling

In many parts of the world, counselling and psychotherapy are not commonly used services. Especially in collectivistic, non-western countries it would not be a mental health professional, but a trusted family member constituting the first point of contact for someone experiencing personal problems. Going to a psychologist or psychiatrist would be seen as sign of weakness and indicate that the person is perhaps ‘insane’. However, since only a timely appointment with a campus counsellor or external mental health specialist guarantees that the student receives the necessary treatment to prevent a problem from escalating, every university should think of ways of helping their students to seek and access professional mental health services, if they need to. Here are a few measures that may help your university to promote psychological counselling.

Introduce counsellors as ‘Trusted Persons’

During the first orientation days, students should get properly introduced to your on- or off-campus counselling services. Your counsellors should introduce themselves as experts on typical student problems such as stress management issues, learning difficulties, relationship concerns, etc, and not as clinicians or psychotherapists. Even if counsellors do provide these services, it should not be emphasised too much unless a student is explicitly asking for this kind of expertise. To stress the fact that counsellors are Trusted Persons that can support the student even if they are in trouble with academia or the university administration, students must be made aware that counselling is absolutely independent and confidential.

Address counselling myths proactively

When introducing your counselling services, mention a variety of milder and more severe difficulties that students can approach you with. Educate them about the fact that many students at your university seek and benefit from these services (eg every 1 in 5 students). Perhaps tell them about the ‘top five’ commonly reported concerns. During an introductory presentation you could even ask them what they think these top five concerns are. Engaging in a discussion about the nature and frequency of typical student concerns will enable counsellors to show their expertise while relating to students’ perceptions and questions in a light and non-intimidating way.

Involve counsellors in awareness campaigns

Once you have identified student populations that underutilise your mental health services (eg international students, male students, etc), conduct awareness campaigns at sites where you are likely to meet these students (dormitories, cantinas, research buildings, etc). If counsellors leave their practices and engage in creative campaigning and outreach on student topics such as stress management, intercultural competence, conflict resolution, etc, students will have the opportunity to interact with them naturally, get a feeling for their personalities and probably find it easier to approach them later, if they needed their advice.

Help staff to identify and refer students

Another important measure is helping your staff to recognise and refer troubled students as soon as possible. Apart from skill-building workshops that raise awareness of early warning signs and teach staff how to address their perceptions, to discuss support options, refer, and follow-up, your university should have a policy and workflow procedure in place. Concerned members of staff as well as the university leadership will benefit from clear guidelines on how to respond to a perceived mental health problem. Guidelines should include aspects such as the roles and responsibilities of different staff members, the need for privacy protection and/or confidentiality release, special consideration and sick leaves, escalation steps and emergency response.

Importance of confidentiality

Training your staff on the importance of confidentiality is also highly important. When confidentiality is not maintained, rumours abound, especially among students. Rumours can be incredibly destructive, affecting everything from student morale to perceptions of the institution in the larger community.  Most rumours start with staff or student workers in the affected offices. By providing staff with adequate training on confidentiality, your institution will be better qualified to handle rumours in an effective way.

Frank Haber
Jacobs University, GermanyFrank is Psychological Counselor and Intercultural Education Officer at Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany.