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The Critical Role of Mental Health for College Students

Photo by Kyle Gregory Devaras on Unsplash

Mental health is a critical aspect of student well-being and success in college. By prioritizing mental health support, reducing stigma, and advocating for necessary resources and policies, we can create healthier, more supportive college environments.

We had the pleasure of interviewing Lauren Pendleton, Senior Professional Relations Representative & National College Liaison at the Renfrew Center of Charlotte, which specializes in treating eating disorders.

Lauren's Background

Can you tell us about your role at the Renfrew Center of Charlotte?

Lauren: As The Renfrew Center’s National College Liaison, I provide support to colleges across the country, specifically as it relates to eating disorder concerns. This support is provided through hosting trainings for providers on campuses, offering resources to students via speaking engagements and other events, and building relationships with each campus to identify their main desires for change. My overall hope is to be a reliable resource for the providers who are working daily with students on campus so that they feel as supported as possible while helping their students navigate their mental health concerns.

How did you start advocating for mental health on college campuses?

Lauren: My journey in advocating for mental health started in college when I became involved in our eating disorder awareness week on campus. During graduate school, I had a role working within college athletics, which also gave me a front-row seat to a lot of the challenges our students were facing. Advocating for them, specifically around their mental health, became a passion point for me.

Mental Health Trends Among College Students

What are some of the most common mental health challenges college students face today?

Lauren: Social media, while it has its benefits, also presents students with an array of challenges that often impact their mental health. Through these platforms, we see students engaging in an almost continuous pattern of self-comparison, which can lead to increased anxiety and depressive symptoms. Additionally, the pressure on college students to excel and perform is higher than ever before, contributing to negative impacts on mental health, such as decreased self-confidence, fear of failure, and increased self-criticism.

Have you noticed any emerging trends or patterns in mental health issues among college students in recent years?

Lauren: In recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in anxiety and depression among college students, often linked to social media use and academic pressures. There is also a growing awareness and openness about mental health issues, leading to more students seeking help, which is a positive trend.

Where Institutions Can Improve

How can colleges and universities better support students' mental health needs?

Lauren: Providers on campuses do an exceptional job with the resources they have, but the more campuses can add to their existing mental health teams, the better. Upcoming generations are prioritizing mental health and wanting support early in their journey. Systemically, students would benefit from schools allowing more flexibility and accommodations for those needing to prioritize their mental health. At Renfrew, we have developed college-specific residential programming to help students maintain a course load while participating in treatment, but more work is needed to make students feel they can prioritize self-care while being students.

Can you share examples of colleges with exemplary mental health programs or initiatives?

Lauren: Each school has its strengths in this area and implements what works for its particular student body. Some colleges are particularly notable for their comprehensive mental health services and innovative programs.

Reducing Stigma and Building Awareness

What strategies do you recommend for reducing the stigma around mental health issues on college campuses?

Lauren: One of the best ways to destigmatize mental health is to talk about it. This can be done by offering safe spaces for conversations, hosting speakers, and mental health-related events, developing student organizations around mental health education and advocacy, and ensuring that each student is educated on available services, their locations, and how to access them. Making mental health a continuous part of daily conversations will help reduce stigma.

How important is it for colleges to promote mental health awareness, and what are some effective ways to do this?

Lauren: Promoting mental health awareness is vital for building a mentally healthy campus. This can be achieved through nationally recognized events such as Mental Health Awareness Month, Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and Suicide Prevention Month. Providing resources and education on campus helps students feel comfortable seeking help and supporting others.

Programs and Resources

What types of mental health resources should colleges provide to their students?

Lauren: The most important resource is a safe, accessible space for students to discuss their concerns. If on-campus resources are limited, referrals to community resources, such as outpatient providers and support groups, can be incredibly helpful.

Can you discuss the role of campus counselors and other mental health professionals in supporting students?

Lauren: Campus therapists are often the first form of support for students with mental health issues. They may provide short-term treatment, evaluate the severity of symptoms, and explore appropriate next steps, including community referrals for long-term care. Counseling centers also offer crisis support and develop on-campus resources and events to educate the student body based on common concerns.

Mental Health Effects of COVID-19 

How have external factors, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, affected college students' mental health?

Lauren: The COVID-19 pandemic caused major disruptions, leading to increased isolation and mental health challenges among students. The sudden switch to online classes and events exacerbated feelings of isolation, leading to a resurgence of mental health symptoms and increased demand for services.

What long-term impacts do you foresee these external factors having on mental health in college settings?

Lauren: The pandemic's long-term impacts include trauma-related symptoms, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. College counseling centers will likely continue to see an increase in students presenting with these issues.

Advice for Students

What advice would you give to college students who are struggling with their mental health?

Lauren: There is no such thing as being 'sick enough' to seek treatment. If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, or anxiety, or think you may have an eating disorder, reach out to on-campus resources. Your health is your number one priority, and getting help sooner rather than later is essential.

How can students advocate for better mental health resources on their own campuses?

Lauren: Students can advocate by approaching their administration or Dean with their concerns. Joining existing mental health groups or starting new student organizations can also be effective ways to promote change.

Future Directions

What future developments do you hope to see in the realm of college mental health services?

Lauren: I hope to see policies that emphasize the importance of ensuring students receive the mental health support they need. Empowering and trusting providers to make recommendations in the best interest of students and dedicating resources to implement those recommendations is crucial.

How can national policies support better mental health outcomes for college students?

Lauren: National policies can support better mental health outcomes by promoting the integration of mental health services into the educational framework, ensuring adequate funding for mental health programs, and encouraging colleges to adopt flexible and supportive practices for students in need.


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