Focus on students’ well-being

The world is changing, today’s college students are changing, and so too must higher education.

College students are attempting to put their worlds together, their realities and their pathways to success. But who will assist them in this important and daunting task? To date no one. This is why well-being statistics among college students are so alarming.

According to the American College Health Association’s 2015 survey 54 percent of students reported “feeling overwhelming anxiety.” Students have not been taught how to manage the growing complexities of life away from home, competing for academic accomplishments and hence good jobs, and social engagement with peers and mentors. They simply do not know how to make this major human development transition. Anxiety is an emotion, a feeling that results from not having a mental framework that allows for changes to one’s mindset and therefore emotional regulation. To further complicate sorting out the ability to make changes in one’s thinking and accommodate feelings, so many students are not able to even feel their emotions, a clinical condition known as dissociation. Resultant behaviors include more and more extreme attempts to feel such as: cutting, binge drinking, aggressive sexual relations, suicide, among others.

They are left to flounder directionless in a fast-paced modern society that leaves them feeling more and more alone, and lonely.

The statistics are alarming and have reached a critical stage.

▪  24 percent of students harm themselves through cutting or other forms of self-mutilation, nationwide.

▪  23 percent of women are sexually assaulted on campus, nationally.

▪  71 percent of University of Pennsylvania students get blackout drunk in college; with 28 percent at least once or twice a week.

▪  More than 40 percent of Penn State students do not feel safe according to a 2015 sexual aggression study.

▪  At Penn State there has been a 33 percent increase in the number of students treated through Counseling and Psychological Services over the past five years, an additional 3,000 students, during a time when enrollment went up by only 5 percent.

In a WPSU-produced show, “Higher Education: Evaluating Mental Health on Campus,” Ramon Guzman Jr., a senior at Penn State, indicated that “it (mental health and well-being) is an issue that affects everyone around us.” This expresses the ubiquity of the issue on this and all college campuses. We would like to see a focus upon adopting new models of empowering students’ well-being as a key strategy to addressing the swell of demand and to provide students with high-impact practices that transform their college experiences.

At Penn, where in 2014 they experienced six suicides in a 14-month period, a special task force put forth a set of recommendations to address “the challenges confronting students that can affect their psychological health and well-being, review and assess the efficacy of Penn resources for helping students manage psychological problems, stress, or situational crises; and make recommendations related to programs, policies, and practices designed to improve the quality and safety of student life.”

In Cornell University’s most recent strategic plan they made it their priority and responsibility to teach coping or life skills to their students as a part of their academic mission, “the obligation of the university (to) maintain and nurture the existing strengths of Cornell’s student experience, improving teaching, enhancing the diversity of the student body, and nurturing student health and well-being are priorities.”

There is a growing awareness among college students and front-line college educators that they need to shift from simply protecting students from harm to developing psychologically heathy and stronger people as a part of their mission.

College-aged students have different needs than previous generations of college students. And yet, our colleges and universities have been slow to meet these needs with new services, support programs and organizational alignments. Even more directly, students are not being taught how to define success for themselves, what student success means, beyond institutional goals.

It is critical in our view that university leaders relay to students the interconnectedness among mental health and well-being to student success.

What is transformative about our work and the high-impact practices presented in our new book is that we demonstrate through research and practice that students have a higher purpose that is driving their thoughts, feelings and actions. A DNA of consciousness, if you will, that when learned transforms their quality of life.

People are naturally good and want to express what is unique to them, what they were born to be and to impact the quality of life toward the greater good — for self, others and all.

We see the increased need for academic affairs and student affairs organizations to be combined into one seamless whole in order to be better able to serve student needs. The student success model we are describing requires a higher contextual view of both with new approaches and the elimination of beliefs and type of thinking that does not place student well-being first.

The need is clear for a new integrated student success model that places wellness at the center, and moreover empowers students to define success for themselves.

Henry G. Brzycki and Elaine J. Brzycki are authors of a forthcoming book, “Student Success in Higher Education.” They can be contacted at Henry@Brzyckigroup.com.