Campus Mental Health and Community: What colleges need to focus on is teaching students how to create their own communities
Campuses across the country are trying to figure out how to meet the demands of an ever-growing mental health crisis. They are also scrambling and putting heaps of money into creating that ever-elusive “sense of community.” Students and parents are screaming about both. Professors blame administrators. Administrators are desperate to find solutions, reasoning that a true sense of belonging on campus will equate to better mental health.
Why is this so hard? For one, we are caught in the crossfire of many obvious socio-cultural trends:
But I think the conversation is lacking some key components.
First, when we think of “college community,” we all conjure up images of young people flocking to football games donning school colors and cheering on their much-beloved team. Or students streaming down the street to go to a frat party, an eating club, or a final club to drink, laugh, and have barrels of fun. These are the “good old days” of true college community, right?
Except they weren’t. Football and fraternity cultures were dominated by white Christian males and were seething hotbeds of misogyny, racism, sexual assault, binge-drinking, and drugging. They perpetuate everything colleges and even the government now are trying to stem. Those can’t be the types of “community” we are trying to replicate, right?
Also, our campuses, thank goodness, are now filled with students of every race, creed, color, heritage, gender, sexual orientation, and socio-economic and educational “class.” They are all trying to forge their unique path on the planet. How could all of those people be joined by any one sense of community? I don’t believe they can.
What colleges need to focus on is teaching students how to create their own communities as a way of realizing a more socially just planet. Professors, administrators, and peers can’t really create them for them. We can’t possibly anticipate their individual needs and desires, which are changing all the time.
So, why don’t they do it themselves? They haven’t learned how. Unless they have been active members of a team or theater troupe of some sort, the only communities they have focused on helping create so far are digital communities.
Isn’t it ironic that some of the students complaining most loudly about a lack of community have over 1,000 friends on Facebook and as many followers on Twitter and Instagram?
What colleges owe is to students is to teach them how to define for themselves the values they hold and the kinds of communities they want to belong to and then offer ways for them to learn how to create them for themselves and how to move from one community to another within and outside of their campus, IRL. Not only will that make for a more gratifying college experience and perhaps less loneliness, isolation, and depression, but the skills they learn in doing it for themselves will serve them brilliantly throughout their adult lives.
For many years, as a dean at three Ivy League colleges and now as an AVP at a university with an extraordinary mission, I have had a front row seat to the obstacles to success that college students and their parents confront every year. Even at so-called elite, highly selective colleges such as Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia, where I spent some of my career, students struggle on a daily basis to remain healthy, happy, grounded, and to stay in school. I am dedicated to helping them.