College students are forming mental-health clubs and organizations, and it's...

College students are forming mental-health clubs and organizations, and it's working, experts say. Credit: Getty Images/laflor

Mental-health problems among college students have been climbing since the 1990s, according to the American Psychological Association. And with services increasingly stretched at campus health centers, students have been taking action themselves through peer-run mental-health clubs and organizations. The approach appears to be paying off, a new study finds.

In what they describe as the largest study of its kind, researchers found that across 12 California colleges, such student-run efforts were associated with increased awareness of mental-health issues, reduced stigma and a rise in "helping behaviors."

"Student-organized activities can improve college student mental-health attitudes and play an important role in improving the campus climate with respect to mental health," said Bradley Stein, a senior physician policy researcher at the Rand Corp. and one of the paper's lead authors.

He and his colleagues call the unmet need for mental-health care among students "a significant public health issue."

The study, published recently in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, was based on an online survey that asked questions about mental-health awareness and familiarity with Active Minds. The national organization supports student-run mental-health clubs on college campuses. It recently began working at the high school level and now has about 50 high school chapters among its more than 450 groups.

The survey, conducted three times during the 2016-17 academic year, asked students about their familiarity with Active Minds as well as their attitudes about mental health and experiences with psychological difficulties, either their own or those of others. More than 1,100 students at the California colleges and universities participated.

Based on the answers, researchers "graded" the students responding as having "low engagement," "moderate engagement" or "high engagement" with Active Minds and mental-health issues. Initially, 63 percent were in the "low engagement" group, 30 percent in the "moderate" group and 7 percent in the "high engagement" group.

By the end of the academic year, the results for the low and moderate groups showed that increased familiarity with Active Minds was associated not only with increased knowledge but decreased stigma and, perhaps most critically, a greater likelihood of helping another student in a mental-health crisis.

"Student peer organizations can play an important role in changing the campus culture with respect to mental health and in supporting students getting to the mental health services they need," the study concludes.

Active Minds was founded in 2003 by Alison Malmon after the suicide of her older brother. The study's findings left her particularly enthused.

"Starting a conversation about mental health on a student-to-student level could change our approach to mental health, change the landscape and climate," Malmon said. "Now we have the data to prove it."

But how to change that conversation has bedeviled educators.

"The peer relationship really makes a big difference," said Lisa Adams, president of the American College Counseling Association. "The group atmosphere of learning while doing things together -- it really meets them where they are because they care about their peers."

Some Active Minds chapters are at community colleges, which have different, and sometimes more complex, mental-health issues. These schools frequently have fewer resources to assist their students, who often come from different life circumstances.

"We see older students with pre-existing mental-health issues," said Janelle Johnson, president-elect of the American College Counseling Association and director of the mental-health center at Santa Fe Community College. "We also see a lot of veterans who bring more mental-health issues with them."

Student-run programs can help fill in the gap, which is what Zoe Howland hopes to work on when she graduates.

The rising senior at Ithaca College joined its chapter her freshman year and says the group made her transition easier. The New York school's chapter is one of the oldest and largest in the country, averaging about 30 members a year. Among the activities they promote are "Speak Your Mind" panels for which students are trained to tell their own mental-health stories or those of friends or family members. The panels visit classrooms and several times a year address the entire campus.

"I came in not knowing what I wanted to do," said Howland, who is now the group's co-president. "Now I want to go into mental-health advocacy. Active Minds ignited a passion in me that I didn't know existed."

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