Maslow’s hierarchy of needs emphasizes “love and belonging” as a key tenet of the human experience. After physiological and safety needs, it’s the third, interpersonal component that any psyche suffers from deficiency without.
We’re all predisposed to the pursuit of acceptance amongst social groups, whether it be our circle of friends, our workplace, or a team or organization that we’re a part of. A deficiency can manifest in several ways, none more visceral than a decline in both physical and mental health.
Belonging is a shield that mitigates stress and the development of conditions like depression and anxiety. On World Mental Health Day, I got to thinking about our disproportionately at-risk population of college students struggling with feelings of isolation.
It shouldn’t come as a shock that the traditional college years coincide with the age of onset for lifetime mental illnesses. And while the stigma is melting, the pandemic has compounded these concerns in a seismic way.
I spoke with Senior Campus Advisor and Data Lead at The Jed Foundation Kristelle Aisaka to unpack the nuances of student well-being on campus and how community factors in.
What is JED?
The foundation’s overarching goal is to examine how they can promote the emotional health and well-being of young people and prevent suicide. They focus on building skill sets and creating networks to provide this demographic with better support systems.
JED does a lot of work in communities like colleges, universities, and high schools, looking at mental health, suicide prevention, and substance misuse prevention from a public health approach.
“Clinical services are a really important part of how we support the mental health and well-being of young people, but there are also other things like social connectedness and life skills, and how our system is set up to identify if a young person is struggling,” says Aisaka.
“All of those things are also part of that comprehensive approach to suicide prevention and well-being. We want individuals and groups that support young people to think more holistically about how we can promote the mental health and well-being of those folks.”
There has been much discussion about student well-being around COVID-related adversity, like students’ worries about returning to potentially unsafe campuses or financial constraints.
College students reported rapid spikes in anxiety and depression in 2020—60% of students said that the pandemic made it harder to access mental health care, per a study by the Healthy Minds Network and the American College Health Association.
The pandemic has highlighted a myriad of new and specific arising needs of students, some more confounding than others.
“So much of how we’ve talked to or worked with schools around mental health and well-being is not necessarily face-to-face, yet that’s the assumption. We assume that students will have access to services on campus and that students have opportunities for social connectedness in person,” Aisaka explains.
These expectations were challenged by early-pandemic circumstances as we phased into virtual learning environments. It became much harder to identify how to meet students where they’re at due to the sudden variance in their geographical locations and emotional states.
Students needed access to mental health support as well as opportunities to sow social connectedness. In terms of the latter, many took matters into their own hands, resulting in novel issues.
For example, Aisaka mentions that students feeling bereft of the “traditional college experience” have been facing punitive measures during their first year for reasons other than problematic drinking incidents and tropes of the like. Instead, they’re getting in trouble for breaking social distancing rules.
The severity of the pandemic aside, when a college campus’ relational guidelines change unexpectedly, some deviance is to be expected.
These transgressions beg the question: How can we promote social connectedness and strengthen community engagement on campus without condoning unsafe behaviors?
Through conversations with some of their partner institutions, Aisaka unearthed the importance of targeting the spaces in which students were already operating—naturally, online.
When events with free food or other incentives fell away, “there weren’t as many carrots for schools to dangle to foster some of those social connectedness opportunities,” she says.
Some schools and organizations were connecting with their young people through social media via takeover events, which involve a lot of highly engaging student-generated content. Some also took the direct route and utilized peer advisors and ambassadors who would share content on their own personal social media channels.
The new task was to share the same kind of information that they had been previously, but make it easily digestible and accessible to students from afar. Transforming resources into infographics or quick 10-second videos is one way to do just that.
The vitality of peer support
Giving students the floor in digital spaces with vast audiences works, but to take a holistic approach to the problem of student well-being is to consider what goes on behind the scenes and even beyond the screens.
“I think that peer-to-peer support happens whether or not we properly equip young people to do it. We have been shown that time and time again. And we know that even if we aren’t formally giving young people the training and tools, there’s still a lot at their disposal to be able to help on their own,” Aisaka says.
Unprompted support from students is all good and well, but it implies the chance for prompted support to take place.
There are steps that schools have taken to improve what that peer-to-peer support looks like in small ways across campus. Actionable tactics like identifying key players can help universities expand their reach and make peer support more accessible.
Aisaka lists some suggestions of students to set sights on, such as government or organization leaders like those in fraternities and sororities, peer advisors or peer mentors in academic departments, and resident advisors.
Amongst the pool of students who want to help, there’s a surplus who don’t know where to start. “A lot of what our schools are sharing is a five-step list of what you could do to support a friend. They’re making campus and online resources more readily available to the broader community,” Aisaka reports.
Community for prosperity
In the 2004 well-being manifesto for a flourishing society by Nic Marks and Hetan Shah at the new economics foundation (nef), well-being is defined not only by happiness but also by leading a fulfilling life. Their proposed dimensions of well-being are satisfaction, personal development, and a sense of community.
Supporting students with mental health resources helps build the framework for a thriving culture of well-being, but facilitating social connectedness with others in their community is essential to the maintenance of that well-being.
According to one study, participants with a larger number of very close and close ties reported a lower increase in loneliness during COVID-19 than those with lower counts of very close and close ties.
“A priority for JED regarding what we’ve done with schools revolves around how students can find groups that they identify with or make connections with,” Aisaka explains.
This sometimes means determining how students on particularly homogenous campuses can locate diverse cohorts within their communities to strengthen that sense of belonging.
“These things have always been a really important part of other public health approaches to suicide prevention and mental health promotion,” she states.
Students in crisis should seek out professional help as community is not a panacea for mental illness, but finding a niche is a crucial stride toward the fulfillment that breeds individual well-being.