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Around 80% of college students highlight increasing mental health concerns on their campuses. As campus counseling centers face heightened demand for mental healthcare, provider shortages leave some students without the support they need. Suicide awareness and prevention then become paramount to bridge that gap. Could the key to this problem be fostering a sense of belonging among students?
The recent TimelyCare webinar “Student Belonging on Campus: A Key to Suicide Prevention”, part of the Gen Ztressed thought leadership series, brought together experts in higher education and mental health advocacy to discuss student belonging and suicide prevention.
- Aneri Pattani, Moderator and Senior Correspondent, KFF Health News
- Janis Whitlock, Senior Advisor, The Jed Foundation and Emerita Research Scientist at Cornell University
- Amy Gatto, Director of Research & Evaluation, Active Minds
- Rick Gatteau, Vice President of Student Affairs and Instructor, Stony Brook University
The panel agreed that a sense of belonging positively impacts academic success, retention rates, and mental wellness, making it vital for suicide prevention. Pattani, the moderator, noted, “The rising concerns about mental health on campuses cannot be overlooked.”
Key insights from the discussion:
1. Comprehensive approach
Gatteau stressed the importance of integrating mental health support throughout college life – starting from day one. He cited two initiatives at Stony Brook University: The Student Support Team, which guides students to the right resources, filling a crucial gap between academic advising and clinical counseling, and the Welcome Week program, aimed at connecting new students. His straightforward goal: “I’d like every student to make five friends by the end of the week.”
2. Building communities through collaboration
Whitlock stressed that the first step to tackling mental health concerns is recognizing the issue and bringing together various stakeholders to develop a comprehensive approach. She promoted the need for “communities of care” that engage students in mental health efforts, as they are often the first to recognize when a peer is struggling. This proactive approach goes beyond risk reduction to foster a connected, caring community.
3. Beyond traditional counseling
Gatto highlighted that directing all students to the counseling center isn’t always the best route. “Not everyone is meeting criteria for clinical diagnosis.” The discussion noted the necessity of diverse support systems, from academic advising to disability services. She pointed out that coaching programs are also becoming popular as they equip students with life skills and goal-setting tools. These various approaches acknowledge the transitional phase students are in as they become independent from their traditional support networks.
Foster a sense of student belonging on your campus
4. Facets of belonging
Gatto elaborated on belonging as a multi-dimensional concept. “So much of [belonging] is the sense of connection… knowing that you can be your full self,” she said, “and that your identities are accepted, appreciated, and valued on a college campus.” Gatteau echoed this sentiment, “Part of that [belonging] is the belonging that’s been built over time because students feel like they were cared for.” Universities must be thoughtful about crafting a sense of belonging, using tools like peer programs and pulse surveys to monitor student engagement and belonging.
5. Proactive and reactive strategies
The panel discussed the balance between proactive and reactive strategies in fostering belonging. Gatteau from Stony Brook University emphasized the importance of proactive steps like pre-orientation programs, saying, “One of our responses as higher education administrators is to create those structured spaces to allow [belonging] to happen organically.” On the flip side, Gatto highlighted the student’s role in this process: “…young adults want to feel genuine… it’s up to them if they want to go to these events, how they want to show up where they want to engage.” Fostering a sense of belonging is neither a purely organic process nor something engineered solely through policy. It is, rather, an interplay of structured opportunities, personal choices, reactive support, and proactive planning.
6. Faculty engagement and student well-being
Faculty have a crucial role in enhancing the student experience. As Whitlock points out, “the culture set by leadership at the university is critically important.” To help faculty address a range of student needs, Gatteau recommends the “Red Book,” describing it as a comprehensive guide that “includes an online website that shows any situation that’s occurring with a student inside the classroom and what to do about that.” Adding to this, Gatto suggests that faculty engagement doesn’t have to be burdensome. “It really is about feeling just visible in the world,” she says, “advocating for simple, yet meaningful, check-ins with students.”
To balance their responsibilities effectively, faculty can adopt several practical strategies. These include using “slivers of time” for casual conversations, relying on teaching assistants to expand the support network, and conducting brief check-ins to maintain a supportive learning environment. These actions aim to create a harmonious balance between faculty obligations and meaningful student engagement.
The TimelyCare “Gen Ztressed” webinar shed light on student mental health and the vital role of belonging. By focusing on daily interactions, endorsing peer programs, understanding silent signals of distress, acknowledging student emotions, and fostering continuous mental health conversations, institutions can shape healthier campus communities and cultivate belonging among students. You may watch the webinar in its entirety here.
Contact TimelyCare to learn how a virtual health and well-being platform can help students feel seen, foster a sense of belonging, and mitigate suicidal thoughts and behaviors among students.