Sometimes, it’s all about choosing where to eat. On this particular day in 2012, I was deciding between a couple of places on the Duke University campus, with just enough time between Board of Trustee sessions to grab a bite. Fortuitously, I elected to grab a bagel in a venue in the student union where the president and vice president of The Duke Endowment (this is the Duke family endowment…not Duke University’s) also happened to be eating. At their invitation, I joined them where we engaged in a fascinating and, what would eventually become a significant, conversation about the status of students’ mental health.
The leadership of the Duke Endowment had apparently been following the news of rising suicides, greater expression of vulnerability and declining overall mental health of students and wondered to what I attributed all of this. I shared my thoughts which included concerns about over-protective parents, over-scheduled children, excessive use of technology and social media, overwhelming and global news dissemination, persistent and pronounced hate incidents, and more. In response to questions of solutions to this crisis, I offered vague but unclear ideas about population-level, preventative interventions rather than simply relying on more counselors and other forms of distress response efforts. We began focusing on resiliency-building techniques rather than disease response approaches.
At the urging of my luncheon colleagues, I began to develop a proposal for a research study that would lead to the development of population-level interventions to strengthen students’ resiliency. Over the course of that year, this idea germinated into a multi-million-dollar proposal that involved nearly 20 faculty and administrators, engaged four colleges and universities, and focused on tracking the undergraduate class of 2018 through their entire collegiate experience. The Student Resilience and Well-Being Project collected data on more than 6,600 variables across 11 waves of data collection from more than 2,000 students.
Unfortunately, just as our efforts to summarize and disseminate our findings were about to happen, the Covid crisis hit, and all attention was justifiably diverted to addressing that pernicious situation. Ironically and alarmingly, the post-Covid conditions on college and university campuses make this work even more important and valuable. According to the American Psychological Association:
“By nearly every metric, student mental health is worsening. During the 2020–2021 school year, more than 60% of college students met the criteria for at least one mental health problem, according to the Healthy Minds Study, which collects data from 373 campuses nationwide (Lipson, S. K., et al., Journal of Affective Disorders, Vol. 306, 2022). In another national survey, almost three quarters of students reported moderate or severe psychological distress (National College Health Assessment, American College Health Association, 2021).”
The article goes on to identify a variety of approaches campuses are taking to address this issue. Unfortunately, most efforts seem more reactive than proactive, requiring more and more precious resources which have begun to dwindle as Covid emergency relief funds dissipate.
In the years since the completion of our Resiliency and Well-Being Study, many of the faculty and staff associated with the project have retired or moved on to other roles and assignments. I retired in 2019 but remain active as a consultant and teacher and have been involved with various approaches to virtual and campus-based healthcare. It seems clear to me that the outcomes of our study and the key areas of intervention identified by the study are more important than ever.
The study identified four key foundations of resilience as noted in this graphic.
The Duke Endowment publication notes several initiatives that were launched towards the end of the study period, based on preliminary findings that confirmed the influence of these four focal areas. But, years and the impact of Covid have passed since that time, and a fresh look at potential interventions guided by these findings is warranted. In the rest of this article, I want to offer my thoughts, as someone with 50 years of collegiate student support experience, on further ways to address the campus mental health crisis based on our findings.
Can colleges really teach or even modestly influence students’ self-control? Vulnerability to negative influences seems well-established by high school age, so the challenge to campuses is to reverse a years-long period of social conformity and group-think mentality. We’ve struggled with students’ alcohol consumption and substance abuse for as long as I’ve been an administrator…and much longer. I do believe that campuses have made a difference but can do much more to establish a culture with reduced peer pressures and reduced willingness by students to conform to destructive behaviors.
Creating a culture and climate of positive self-control—one where most students will make behavioral choices that conform to their values and ideals, rather than submit to the will of others—requires persistence and patience. There’s no inoculation for foolish or dangerous behaviors and occasional but measured risk-taking is well-recognized as part of the journey to maturity. But diminishing overt hazing, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual misconduct and other common, destructive aspects of American collegiate behavior is essential. In my experience, the practices that have had the best effect to achieve this objective include:
- Surrounding incoming students with peer influencers and mentors who model healthy behaviors, reinforce messages of self-empowerment, and invite healthy forms of engagement. The selection and training of resident assistants, for example, at residential campuses is key. The same is true for peer academic advisors, orientation leaders, and any students who serve as mentors and advisors to entering students.
- The development of communities that are self-governed and guided by principles of inclusion, care, and forgiveness. Again, residential campuses have a great opportunity to accomplish this through residence hall models that foster small and frequent gatherings. The science of space can inform how best to create physical spaces that foster these exact conditions. Non-residential campuses can accomplish the same through learning cohorts, clubs and organizations, study groups, and other facilitated group gatherings.
- Adjudication practices that are less punitive and more educational with a focus on self-reflection, self-awareness, and self-compassion. Early intervention at the point of modest miscues can offer opportunities to prevent irrecoverable disasters.
- Well-being coaches who can work with teams of students on nutritional guidance, fitness plans, stress avoidance, relief tools and more.
- Faculty development programs that inform faculty about the science of self-control, encourage the development of effective time management skills for students and advise them how to respond to early indications of procrastination and incomplete assignments.
As may be obvious, moving the needle on a culture of self-control requires campus-wide coordination and consistency. Messaging about institutional values and norms regarding student behaviors must begin with enrollment recruitment messaging, continue through onboarding processes, and extend through academic and co-curricular student engagement. Healthy behaviors need to be modeled by peer and professional staff, by faculty and by deans. Even alumni who might signal historical patterns of behaviors perhaps previously tolerated but now recognized as inappropriate must be ‘re-educated.’ For campuses with significant graduate and professional students in attendance, customized versions of this approach may be useful as well. This is especially true where graduate students represent a significant part of the instructional staff.
With a new crop of students arriving each year, socialized by mass media, ill-informed peers, and romantic historians (their parents), the process of acculturation to healthy norms and of reinforcing the positive attributed of self-control is ongoing. Measures of changing patterns of behavior are available and should be part of a campus analysis of movement towards good community health and well-being.
Our study, unsurprisingly, found that students who were most excited and most engaged by their studies were also among the healthiest of our students. Being academically engaged doesn’t mean having the highest grades (though engaged students do tend to score above average). These students, in the words of one of our researchers, have a ‘gusto’ for their studies. They love what they’re learning and can’t wait to get back to it. For faculty, in particular, having a classroom full of engaged students is the holy grail!
Recent research by Gallup-Purdue University offers insights into practices which stimulate academic engagement and post-graduate career and personal success.
The findings highlight the importance of faculty who are great teachers, who actually get to know their students, and who provide opportunities for project work, in collaboration with others, for more than a brief period of time. Guided immersion into some intellectual effort is key.
In addition to caring and engaged faculty, students benefit from a variety of mentors which can include alumni, campus administrators, and volunteers from the local community. The development of practical skills through apprenticeships and internships is also critical as is leadership and followership opportunities through campus clubs and organizations.
This study focused on the power and influence of engagement in the academic realm, but in my experience, engagement across the campus environment is equally advantageous. The students whom I knew to be deeply involved in athletics, campus newspapers, community service, campus social groups, and more always seemed to me to be among the healthiest. Of course, there are outliers…I know plenty of students who were highly functioning alcoholics. But it was always quite clear to me and my colleagues that disaffected students struggled the most while engaged students thrived.
The broad literature on ‘belongingness’ (space limitations prohibit from a full treatment in this article) reinforces the findings on academic (and non-academic) engagement. The stronger the sense of belongingness at and to an institution, the greater the likelihood of engagement and well-being.
Being resilient doesn’t mean never failing. In fact, I imagine that healthier people are more self-confident and are prone to taking calculated risks. On campus, self-confident students pursue leadership roles, try out for lead roles in campus stage productions, take more challenging courses and take greater advantage of all the opportunities available to them. But self-confidence doesn’t always equal self-compassion, and inevitable failures, especially among the most ambitious students, can result in extremely debilitating consequences.
Our study showed that students who scored highest on self-compassionate scores also scored highest on our overall well-being indices. This means that healthy students accepted their failures but didn’t wallow in them. They learned from their mistakes, gave themselves grace for their missteps and moved on. If only we were all so kind to ourselves!
Can self-compassion be taught to all students? Absolutely! There’s considerable evidence of the relationship between mindfulness practices and self-compassion reinforcing the value of mindfulness training for all students as a campus-wide practice. In my time at Duke University, members of our counseling staff developed a program called Koru Mindfulness (now The Mindfulness Institute) which was promoted widely among first-year students. For other students, faith-based practices and engagements offer support for self-kindness and compassion. Athletics teams have begun to adopt self-compassion awareness to assist with recovery from losses and academic advisors are increasingly being trained to assist students with recovery from exam and course underperformance.
What’s better than good friends? And I don’t mean all those Facebook or other social media friends! When it comes to the power of friends as stimulant for health, it’s not about the numbers. Having even one or two really good friends—friends who will look out for you, forgive your missteps, and celebrate/grieve with you unconditionally—makes a huge difference, according to our study. This may seem pretty obvious to all of us, but institutional efforts to promote friendships aren’t quite so simple.
Sometimes you have to break a model to build a better model. For example, at Duke, I discovered through our ongoing assessments that every year, more and more incoming students were pre-selecting a roommate rather than letting one be assigned to them randomly. Digging into the data, I discovered that most who chose this option were white students and mostly from wealthy families. This wasn’t too surprising as these students had the social capital to meet other students at summer camps or from their high schools and chose to room with one another rather than risk assignment with someone perceived to be ‘less compatible.” The problem, in addition to the self-segregation outcome, was that these roommates rarely actually became friends. The superficial characteristics they had in common rarely served as the foundation for a good friendship so, in time, these relationships drifted apart.
Given what we learned, we made a change. With the support of institutional leaders, we prohibited the pre-selection of roommates and mandated random assignments of all students (with some exceptions among varsity athletes). I also enlisted the support of a faculty member who had previously conducted research around roommates, friendships and diversity of relationships who agreed to track the consequences of the random assignments. It was gratifying to learn that random assignments lead to longer-lasting friendships and greater appreciation of differences among students from varying identities and cultures.
Residential campuses have ample opportunities to sponsor options for exposure to potential friends and non-residential campuses can do so through various student clubs and organizations. The point is to be deliberate about connecting students in pairs, teams, and communities. The student projects mentioned in the academic engagement foundation can also help forge friendships. The quality of a campus environment can also encourage friendship development. One of my first projects at Duke was to convert a passageway that promoted unengaged movement into a beautiful plaza where students (and others) preferred to stop, relax, and converse with those around them. I’m a huge proponent of campus architecture, both indoors and outside, that foster connections and engagement.
The four foundations I’ve noted are proven elements that promote students’ well-being. I’ve shared a few practices that align with the principles embedded in each foundation, but every campus will have their own approaches. If your campus has uniquely addressed one or more of these foundations, I’d love to hear about it!
Larry Moneta, EdD, served as vice president for Student Affairs at Duke University from 2001 to 2019, when he retired to a life of consulting, teaching, and grandparenting. Dr. Moneta serves as adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and teaches in the Global Higher Education Management program and the Executive Doctorate Program for Higher Education Management.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Strange CC, Banning JH. Designing for Learning : Creating Campus Environments for Student Success. Second ed. San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass; 2015.