The stresses of the global pandemic have exacerbated mental health issues among college students. Universities should make mental health awareness part of their marketing and communication strategy and help students access the support they’re desperately seeking.

Today’s generation (higher education’s target market) seems to be more aware of mental health than ever before. If you want a good barometer for the cultural mood, look no further than online memes.

Mental Health Memes

You will note that younger folks have an outstanding proclivity for dark humor and a willingness to discuss mental health. This has led some to conclude that the younger generation is more sensitive. But in truth, younger generations are simply more aware of mental health issues than previous generations and are willing to talk about it.

In other words, we had just as many people struggling with their mental health decades ago as we have now, but it was stigmatized then and swept under the rug. The alternative was to be sent off to the “funny farm” for some electric shocks or dose up on patent medicine full of heroin and cocaine. If those were your choices, wouldn’t you keep your psychological symptoms secret, too?

We’re more open about our mental health now, with far less stigma attached. Even our celebrities aren’t afraid to own their psychological issues, which inspires our younger generations to both face their mental health struggles head-on and to have confidence that they can still lead a happy life.

We had an increasing trend in young adult mental health awareness already. And then along came the pandemic

Yeah, we’re all so sick of hearing about it. The COVID-19 pandemic is almost the perfect storm of aggravating mental health already since it cuts us off socially and isolates us. We can’t even get out to a movie theater or experience normal restaurant dining to blow off steam. Issues like Seasonal Affective Disorder are now starting to combine with COVID-19 for a double whammy.

Of course, the pandemic has thrown a monkey wrench into the educational industry, which is still scrambling to cope. This has added to the load on young adults with ambitions of a degree. Normally, we typically look back on university campus life as being at least fun, even the proverbial “best years” for some. COVID-19 snuffed out the fun part fast.

What does this mean for higher education marketing? Traditionally, higher education has focused on a shortlist of value propositions for its marketing message: quality education, flexible financing, secure living arrangements, vibrant campus culture, etc. How strange does it sound to focus instead on mental health support? “Come to our campus because we do our best to ensure that you won’t crack up, and if you do, doctors are standing by! (no electroconvulsive treatment, we promise)”

Well, we might have to start thinking that way…

 

Student Mental Health: An Invisible Pandemic Crisis

The second-leading cause of death among college students is suicide. Some 12% of college students report at least having suicidal thoughts during their educational career. Primary risk factors include “a sense of isolation and lack of support,” depression, substance abuse, and traumatic life events.

Percentage of students reporting mental health and substance abuse issues

We can see where the pandemic can aggravate those risk factors, and indeed, Inside Higher Ed reports that this is exactly the case. The more recent report from the CDC cited by that article shows that 25% of 18- to 24-year-olds had “seriously considered suicide” in the last 30 days. Concurrently, the Student Experience in the Research University finds students screening positive for depression and anxiety at higher rates. At the same time, student surveys show that students are having a difficult time accessing mental health care.

Impacts on mental health specific to the pandemic include:

  • More financial stress due to the economic crisis we have going along with the pandemic
  • Fear for one’s safety
  • Relatives and loved ones falling ill or passing away—with US deaths approaching 300K, this fear is growing
  • Uncertainty as to when the pandemic will end or what we, as a society, are going to do about the aftermath
  • Lack of access to supportive staff or resources

Students are saying that they simply do not know where to turn for help. In a pandemic, medical treatment is focused on those directly infected, which is currently overwhelming the healthcare industry. This might contribute to mental health being pushed to the end of the line.

Beyond the obvious crisis of suicide, student mental health impacts the bottom line of universities as well:

  • Lower GPAs due to impacted concentration
  • Higher drop-out rate
  • Lower enrollment
  • Security issues from potential incidents brought about by higher stress levels
  • Lack of appeal of campus activities

Notwithstanding the students, we can think of a few university faculty and administration members who have plenty of reasons to be in a pretty blue mood lately, too. Everybody is barely holding it together right now. But students struggle with a heavier load and often less experience coping with major life challenges so their mental health needs to be a top priority.

On a side note, we all know that universities, by the very structure of higher education, tend to harbor the more brainy among us. Your average university graduate does better on a standard IQ test than the mean population. Well, there’s a dark lining to that cloud, because it turns out that the smarter students are more prone to mental health disorders than the mean population too. The highly intelligent are at an increased risk of 80% for ADHD, 80% for anxiety, and almost overwhelmingly prone to a mood disorder.

We aren’t even equipped to guess why—something about the brighter you are the more sensitive you might be—but it’s another clue as to why universities might have a particular struggle to preserve the mental health of their student body.

 

Chemical reactions in the brain affecting mental health

Making Mental Health a Part of Your University Marketing Message

The best answer to the student’s mental health crisis, as is the answer to so many other student problems, is “support, support, and more support.” Unfortunately, this answer is not so simple, with schools also having a staffing pinch and financial strain thanks to the same pandemic. Let’s see what we can meet half-way:

Action item: Let students know where help is available.

Even if your institution doesn’t have in-house services, there are likely to be several local non-profit or charity-funded organizations in your community. There are several on the nation-wide scale as well. The AHCA provides a list of these services. Your school can create a lifeline of sorts simply by having one representative at the school direct students to these external services.

Beyond that, a school counselor or two should not be outside the scope of even the most modest college budget. Perhaps even a therapist if you can swing it. This is also an area where a robust student ambassador program can come in handy. They can check in on students and spread the word about available services.

Action item: Base a brand awareness campaign around resources for help.

You can make the introduction of mental health and counseling facilities part of your campus open house (even the virtual kind) and student orientation. You can make “mental health awareness week” one of your school programs. This can be directed towards an educational campaign about recognizing symptoms and where to find help, or a social awareness campaign to reduce stigma about mental health problems.

As with any awareness initiative, you get the side benefit of raising your brand awareness. Any community service message or resources you can put out to your community is just one more act of goodwill you can proudly affix to your school brand.

University promoting mental health awareness

Action item: Add “neurodiversity” to your school vocabulary.

Neurodiversity” is an acceptance movement centered on those individuals born with different shapes of mind. For conditions like ADHD, autism spectrum, and other variations in human brain wiring, it is an acknowledgment that these people are not “mentally ill” or “disabled,” but rather have different special needs that the rest of us can work to accommodate.

Your school can look into special facilities and accommodations for neurodiverse students and add them to your campus amenities promotional package. These features can include specialized therapists and tutors, enhanced structured scheduling, personal assistants in the form of chatbots, “chill rooms” on campus for a calming break, and so on.

University using social media to remind students to destressAction item: Kill stress!

In the “old days” before the pandemic, campus extracurricular activities served an important function no matter how frivolous the context. They provided stress-busters, pressure release valves, venues for students to get their social needs met, and even a quick meal off the snack tray at certain functions. Whether orchestrated by the school or dreamed up by the student body, all that horsing around helps students forge relationships, destress, and have fun.

In your school’s marketing, you can dare to say the word which no one has spoken since the pandemic hit: Fun! We have a whole other article on simply bringing back campus culture. As long as we stay in the mindset of the day-to-day drudgery of “surviving the pandemic,” we’re living in doomsday where it’s no wonder people think about suicide. Now appeal to young people’s naturally rebellious spirit by changing it to “thriving during the pandemic.” Every school is “surviving,” but if your school can say it’s having fun, pandemic be damned, that’s an attraction in itself.

Action item: Promote your school’s mental health awareness and policy.

At least a page of your university website can be devoted to mental health information and your social media channels can include some awareness outreach as well. YouTube can be especially effective here; you can have videos on recognizing common symptoms, advice for seeking help, tips on de-stressing, and outreach from school faculty addressing the issue of student mental health.

Remember that a big problem students are having right now is simply not feeling understood and feeling isolated. Merely telling them “you’re right, this is stressful, we understand you” can go a long way.

 

Investing in Student Mental Health

The American Council on Education puts out a fantastic publication on “Investing in Student Mental Health.” The PDF is available here. It makes many good points that we won’t have room to cover in detail here, so it’s worth a skim to gain some insight into this eye-opening issue. One thing they do point out is that working to improve student mental health, as with any other health crisis, can save the school money in the long run. The PDF also includes many successes and case studies of universities that are winning the student mental health battle.

Higher education is in the mental health business to start with if you look at it one way. A more educated population is presumably a happier society, if we may be permitted to make such a politically bold assertion in these challenging times. Certainly, a better education leading to a better career tends to lead to better financial success. We know, “money doesn’t buy happiness,” but it gives you more access to the means to find happiness.

One final thought about promoting your school’s mental health support: You might consider a small revamp of some campus materials, like tours and photos. Try to accentuate the cheerful and colorful side of your school. Try to make your curriculum schedule less demanding and offer an extra break here and there. Mental health is a game of mercurial influences. That one moment of hope can save a life.

If you’re interested in marketing mental health awareness across your university but don’t know where to start, contact us! We can help you develop an integrated PPC, SEO, and social media marketing strategy that demonstrates your commitment to fostering student happiness and well-being. When your students feel supported, it’ll boost word-of-mouth recommendations and enrollment.

 

Alex Membrillo Cardinal CEO

Alex Membrillo

Founder and CEO

Alex Membrillo is the CEO of Cardinal, a digital marketing agency focused on growing multi location companies. His work as CEO of Cardinal has recently earned him the honor of being selected as a member of the 2018 Top 40 Under 40 list by Georgia State University as well as 2015 and 2016 Top 20 Entrepreneur of metro Atlanta by TiE Atlanta, Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 2016 Small Business Person of the Year,and the Digital Marketer of the Year by Technology Association of Georgia (TAG).