How to teach actionable mental health skills in the classroom (opinion)

College counseling centers across the country struggle to meet the mental health needs of college students, most of whom report anxiety and depression. Many colleges and universities now offer digital tools or peer counseling programs to help meet an overwhelming demand for mental health services. And in some institutions, the classroom itself provides another environment for students to improve their mental health. As explored in a recent Inside the Ed. superior article, faculty members, who commonly encounter struggling students, often want to help those students. Yet they can often feel reluctant to refer them to counseling centers with long waiting lists or to take on a counseling role themselves.

Over the past five years, I have taught hundreds of students specific strategies for improving their mental health, in the context of a graded academic classroom. After reviewing the research on effective mental health interventions on college campuses, I’ve noticed that a key ingredient is the practice of supervised skills; that is, students actually have to practice new emotional and behavioral skills over and over again, rather than just learning them.

My “science and practice” psychology courses are four weeks long (eight sessions or modules) and address topics related to wellbeing, mindfulness, and compassion (including self-compassion). Each class includes evidence-based approaches to reducing the habit of harsh self-criticism and assigns specific techniques shown to improve well-being, such as cognitive reassessment, behavioral activation, and loving-kindness meditation.

These classes normalize the work of regulating emotions, managing attention, and building healthy habits as basic human endeavors, rather than as a sign that something is wrong with you. They also infuse academic thinking into the students’ emotional work. For example, my students read a study comparing two effective interventions for depressed college students, and then they write about which approach they would prefer and why.

When meeting individual patients for psychotherapy, I often suggest that they try new approaches. Even when patients agree, implementing a new behavior outside the therapy room can take months or may never happen. But when practicing new mental health strategies takes the form of a graded assignment, most students follow along consistently, and many describe significant changes over the four-week course. Also, I can reach many more people at the same time.

Students are not expected to share feelings or situations they feel are too personal; rather, the assignments ask them to comment on some aspect of their inner experience. However, many students choose to share a lot about their mental health challenges and explain how their new cognitive, emotional and behavioral strategies have benefited them.

One student shared, “I remember one day realizing that this practice was helping me, it was when I got into a scrum and didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. I didn’t get stressed and upset, instead I told a teammate, “It’s okay man, at least I have tomorrow.” It was a moment that surprised me.

Another student wrote that after a period of depression and isolation, “I gradually opened my closed heart and started socializing with my classmates and neighbors. This process gradually made me feel that my body and mind became healthier. These and other students have given me permission to anonymously publish quotes from their writings. (I only asked for their permission several weeks after the end of the courses and the grades were final.)

My classes incorporate two types of post-discussion assignments: reading reflections and hands-on experiences. To read the reflections, students answer a discussion prompt about their responses to the research studies. For hands-on experiences, students share any aspect of their lived experience trying a particular new mental or behavioral technique. My classes also require a three-page Research Review Paper, in which students delve into the research literature to answer a specific question related to improving mental health, as well as a Reflection Paper that connects some aspect of their own experience with one of the courses readings. When it comes to grading, if students submit responses to discussion prompts and other assignments that reflect the instruction, they receive full marks, even if they write that they forgot to practice their new skills or encountered difficulties.

Over the course of each four-week class, I provide personalized feedback and suggestions. For example, if a student describes difficulty incorporating new skills into a daily schedule, I might suggest setting up a phone alarm reminder or an Outlook appointment. Other students might get frustrated when their new skills don’t work instantly, so I remind them that hundreds of research studies indicate benefits after several consecutive weeks of practice. Much of my feedback is about normalizing students’ difficult feelings and encouraging them as they practice new skills. I might write something like, “I admire how you go about this inner work and practice your new skills. I encourage you to keep practicing.”

When my students share mental health issues, I text them to see if they want help connecting with other support services, and I provide information on 24/7 crisis hotlines that can be reached by text or phone. However, most of my students do not indicate urgent crises, but rather an interest in developing their repertoire of skills and a greater sense of self-efficacy in managing challenging thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

Beyond the Counseling Center

Addressing mental health in the classroom doesn’t have to be limited to classes like mine or Yale University’s “The Science of Well-Being,” which are led by psychologists. Competency-based programs to improve well-being are often just as effective when paraprofessionals provide them. Instructors who are not psychologists can also advocate for student mental health and well-being in the context of any course.

When the University of Washington’s Resilience Lab asked faculty members what they were already doing in the classroom to support wellbeing, many professors described the integration of “micro-practices.” In my favorite example, which lasted a few seconds, a professor invited students to turn to a neighbor and wish them good luck just before the exam.

Quintin Cutts and his colleagues at the University of Glasgow noticed that students often dropped out of introductory programming lessons. His team found that test scores improved after faculty restructured the classroom to provide feedback that encouraged a growth mindset and to request assignments that directed students to try different ways to solve problems when they got stuck.

Institutions such as the University of Texas have launched campus-wide initiatives to build wellbeing within many learning environments. In class, these might include offering a ‘mindfulness minute’ to normalize distraction, refocus and bring attention back to the room by tuning into the five senses; model a compassionate and growth-oriented perspective when sharing how to learn from mistakes and failures; and close the lesson on a positive note, like asking students to share a related topic they hope to explore further.

College counseling centers across the nation continue to offer vital support to students in crisis, as well as those who may benefit from psychotherapy, medication and referrals. However, at the same time, both students and college counselors describe a need for mental health services beyond the counseling center.

Teaching mental health skills in the classroom is not a panacea or solution to the range of systemic stressors that impact student mental health, including racism, financial worries and sexual assault. Overemphasizing skills training can reinforce the status quo and imply that individuals are solely responsible for their own well-being, even in harmful circumstances. I don’t think it’s a matter of addressing systemic issues versus individual symptoms, but both. Colleges and our wider culture must continue to reduce systemic stressors, and students also deserve access to evidence-based strategies for improving their mental health.

One student explained, “This course presented a doorway, an opening to something bigger, more obvious, and essential than any other studio, class, or lesson I’ve encountered in school and beyond.” Another student wrote, “None of the assignments felt like homework, but a type of mental health service.” In this era, where demand for on-campus mental health services often outstrips supply, I welcome the opportunity to reach many students simultaneously, normalize mental health challenges, and train students to implement evidence-based practices to improve their well-being.

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