NASPA 2018: Thoughts on College Mental Health

NASPA 2018: Thoughts on College Mental Health

I had the opportunity to attend the 2018 NASPA Conference (Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education) and wanted to take a moment to reflect on some of the messages I heard in talks and conversations I had with other attendees.

Certainly, the highlight was a keynote address given by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Sotomayor spoke about some of the challenges she overcame as a first-generation female Puerto Rican college student. She additionally spoke about her openness about her diabetes, and the strength that it takes to open up about one’s personal struggles and ask for help when needed. The interviewer also asked her about how she maintains good relationships with fellow justices whose beliefs, backgrounds, or values may be very different from her own. Justice Sotomayor spoke about the importance of having authentic conversations, sharing experiences, and focusing on all the things that make us human: family, hobbies, books, food, etc. The reminder that we all have more in common than we may think was a good one.

I also enjoyed speaking with various university professionals about their needs and observations about the mental health of college students today. Many of the attendees I interacted with described not only the struggles that they have with respect to meeting the demand for college counselors, but also their belief that “we can’t hire ourselves out of this,” meaning that they need a new approach to address student mental health beyond simply hiring more counseling center staff. While some spoke about hoping to reduce stigma and improve student awareness of counseling resources on campus, others felt that a greater priority would be to provide alternative methods to address student challenges. Some of these alternatives included technology-enabled interventions like Pacifica, or training students to be peer counselors.

The goal of teaching students how to build resilience, handle failure, say no, and manage their time also came up in several conversations. Many students have a challenging awakening when they get to college, and with a focus on signing up for activities or getting good grades, they are often so focused on achievement that they miss out on opportunities to build these so-called “soft skills.” Without these skills, students often struggle and end up at the counseling center. However, this is often in the absence of a significant true mental health problem and this use of resources is not ideal. While some centers are able to implement groups or short workshops, these types of activities can be hard for students to commit to. More flexible resources such as online programs can be effective, and when they are well-designed, mobile-first, and engaging, students are likely to use them. Developing good deployment strategies and the ability to identify the students who need these resources is important, so administrators should look for companies who provide marketing and implementation plans to ensure success.

Overall, NASPA 2018 was a dynamic and exciting conference and really highlighted for me the broad range of individuals and companies who are invested in making student success a reality. I enjoyed speaking with people from different professional backgrounds and look forward to the synergy that is sure to come from some of those conversations!