by Madeleine Deliee

The transition from high school to college is a big one for most teens: independence, autonomy, and choices both small and large are now theirs to make. But that can come at a cost, especially when mental health needs to be addressed in the midst of it all. Madeleine Deliee leads us through ways in which higher education leaders can help students transition into college during this often challenging time.

Summary key points:

  • What I know and what I’ve seen: Deliee’s experience as a mental health services recipient and a high school teacher
  • How schools are changing to address their students’ needs
  • What schools need to consider moving forward

What I know and what I’ve seen

As a college freshman, I had a bad roommate situation, a rollercoaster relationship, and an academic set-up that was not what I’d envisioned. I became depressed and in need of someone to talk to. I was fortunate in that my school immediately arranged for me to see a professional, who got me started on an antidepressant — changes that made an immediate and much-needed difference.

Today, as a high school teacher I see firsthand just how much the necessity for mental health support has increased. I’ve had students who self-harm, who attempt suicide, and who can’t make it to school because their anxiety is so extreme. I worry about those kids — how they will be able to transition into independent living, and what will happen when they don’t have teachers and parents hovering nearby.

Certainly, there are steps that students and parents can take in preparation for college life. Those who are aware of an existing condition can make that part of the planning process, such as how to access services or locating care providers nearby. However, for some students who find that the transition necessitates first-time support, like I did, it’s all the more vital that schools provide ready and thorough access.

How schools are changing to address their students’ needs

I reached out to Dr. Rachel Wernicke, Associate Dean and Chief Mental Health Officer at George Mason University, to discuss what the school is doing to facilitate and promote mental health access. The needs for freshmen are specific, particularly since the typical age for freshmen, 18 or 19, is when serious mental illness often develops or presents for the first time.

“Coping with the stress of transitioning away from their home, family, community, and sources of support [can be challenging],” Dr. Wernicke says, noting that the lack of belonging or connection can lead to diminished well-being.

To that end, the University has focused on what Dr. Wernicke describes as “robust orientation programs and plans for additional measures to help students feel connected to the community.” The Jed Campus initiative, a program designed by the Jed Foundation to guide schools in the process of building and improving on mental health resources, led to “workgroups focused on student transitions and social connectedness to explore ways we can better support our incoming students,” she says. School leadership is heavily involved and invested in participating in the Jed Campus initiative; this has led to the inclusion of resilience curriculum as part of freshman learning, as another way GMU has prioritized supporting students through the challenges of starting college life.

Dr. Sharon Kirkland-Gordon, Director of the Counseling Center at the University of Maryland-College Park, says that UMD also starts scaffolding support early, from orientation, and relies on Counseling Center outreach to increase visibility for available services and programs. Dr. Kirkland-Gordon says the Center also works extensively with the Department of Resident Life.

“We provide training for our resident life staff on common issues and concerns of residents, many of whom are freshmen, and [demonstrate] effective ways to respond,” she explains. “[We] also provide ‘Helping Students in Distress’ training for faculty and staff, so they will be better able to identify and respond to students with mental health needs.”

The Center also offers a Faculty and Staff Warmline, so that employees may consult with a psychologist or counselor about a student of concern.

“The University is in a constant process of updating and retooling its services for students,” Dr. Kirkland-Gordon says. They also re-examine the effectiveness of delivery; for example, the Counseling Center has found that using social media increases its ability to connect. It also utilizes partnerships with student groups, like the Mental Health Student Advisory Board. Dr. Kirkland-Gordon notes that this more direct line of communication helps to “identify issues [and] concerns, and develop strategies for addressing the needs of students.”

What schools need to consider moving forward

Whether due to reduced stigma or more prevalent need, young people acknowledge that mental health is a concern for them. Indeed, the Cooperative Institutional Research Program’s 50-Year Trends (1966-2015) report shows a significant decline in students’ self-reported wellness.  According to the report, “men’s emotional health declined by 9.1 percentage points over 30 years (from 68.1% in the top two response categories in 1985 to 59.0% in 2015); women’s self-rated emotional health fell more than 1.5 times as much, dropping from 59.3% in the top two response categories in 1985 to 43.7% in 2015, a 15.6 percentage-point decline.” And this isn’t unique to the U.S. The World Health Organization surveyed students from eight countries and found that 35% reported symptoms of a diagnosable mental health disorder.

The emotional health in college students has declined over the past 30 years, falling from 68% to 59% in men and from 59% to under 44% in women.

Photo by Florian Pérennès on Unsplash

It’s clear, then, that institutions need to consider the many stressors freshmen bring with them, along with their mini-fridges and twin XL-size sheets. While students may anticipate that acceptance and enrollment will put an end to their anxiety, that cumulative tension may not disappear. In fact, it can serve as a dangerous foundation for further challenges. Psychology Today mentions the pressures of social media and a “curated” vision of college living, as well as the typical separation from family and possible distancing from parental values, as additional factors that may heighten the risk to students’ mental well-being.

Identifying individuals in need of support and making it readily available are two important factors, particularly as those most requiring help may be less likely to request it. Set to Go, a JED Program, walks students and their parents through the process of transitioning into college with a mental health diagnosis. But for those who have not previously experienced these issues, or have not addressed them in the past, there may be a host of perceived obstacles, such as worrying about peer perceptions and confidentiality. Of course, both scenarios must be addressed — but those students experiencing this for the first time are likely to require additional help.

Implementing mental health support for incoming freshmen is demanding and necessary. I was fortunate that services were both present and accessible when I needed them. All students should have those resources available to them — and all institutions should do what is required to provide them.

Campus Mental Health Initiatives in Action:

Time magazine profiled several schools’ efforts to go outside the usual methods of providing mental health support; these institutions worked new angles to better anticipate and meet students’ needs.

  • Virginia Tech University created satellite counseling centers near a popular Starbucks, the athletic department, and the graduate student center.
  • Ohio State University introduced an app that not only assists students in making mental health appointments, but also provides both emergency clinic access and more day-to-day support like breathing exercises and curated playlists.
  • University of Iowa situated counselors within dorms, to provide both better access and increased visibility.


About the author:

Madeleine Deliee is a veteran educator and writer. Her bylines include the Washington Post, CNN, Pacific Standard, Parents, and others. Follow her on Twitter at @MMDeliee.

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