“The mental-health crisis has changed academia forever.” Mentors can help.

By Jean Rhodes
Rates of student mental health struggles have doubled over the past decade and schools are stuggling to meet the growing demand for services. Late or ineffective responses to problems can lead to their escalation and dropout. Although teachers and advisors can help,  their reach remains fairly limited, and those with the greatest needs are often the least likely to take advantage of support. This is explained, in part, by unfamiliarity and/or discomfort that many students feel recruiting the help and support of professional staff, as well as difficulties accessing services amidst growing struggles and demands. And when students do reach out for support, they tend rely on staff with the least job security. A recent Healthy Minds  survey showed  that students rely more on  female, trans/nonbinary, nonwhite, junior staff than teachers and staff.
A recent article in the New York Times  highlighted research several recommendations that could be implemented almost immediately:
  • hire more counselors
  • increase mental-health trainings for faculty and staff;
  • provide opportunities for students to make friends and feel connected;
  • expand student mentoring programs;

The promise of expanding student mentoring programs

While most of the recommendations focus on professional investments, student mentoring programs can shift some of this care to trained peer mentors who can provide just-in-time support.  Indeed, peer mentors are considered uniquely effective, given that they are generally seen by classmates as less-intimidating, more approachable, and more credible than university staff. In fact, peers are generally considered the most important influence on college students’ social and emotional functioning.

Researchers have found peer support to be a positive predictor of university connectedness, and have suggested leveraging more experienced peers to support first-year students. This is because they can

  • shape attitudes and habits around healthy behavior
  • normalize the challenges associated with transitioning to and through college
  • reduce barriers to obtaining support, by making referrals
  • nudge students to complete common tasks
  • deliver early-stage psychological and supportive interventions, often as effectively as professional providers

Despite their potential to bridge gaps, most college-based peer mentoring programs and platforms are are not grounded in evidence. They emphasize nonspecific, relational approaches, and provide uneven training and oversight, which, according to meta-analytic evidence, results in small to non-existent effects on students’ psychological, academic, and behavioral difficulties. 

Particularly given the enormous potential of peer mentors to bridge growing gaps in student support, our research suggests a need for scalable college peer-mentoring approaches that

  • provide sufficient oversight
  • are grounded in targeted, goal-focused approaches
  • draw on clinical and behavioral science and robust data systems.

In recent year, my colleagues and I have been working to do just that–through an evidence-based mentoring platform (MentorPRO) that builds on these recommendations. Peer-reviewed studies have highlighted its effectiveness. 

The new frontier

As Ulrich observed, “It is clear by now that the mental-health crisis has changed academia forever: its structures, its culture and the function it is expected to perform in American society. More than half of American college students now report depression, anxiety or seriously considering suicide. This is a problem that reaches across geography, race, class, identity, institutional resources or prestige and academic ability. Almost one in four Americans in college considered dropping out in the last year because of their mental health. Adjusting pedagogy to account for this scale of illness and, in some cases, disability, is the new frontier of postsecondary education.”