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With an alarming portion of its students determined to be in psychological distress, Iowa State University is preparing a student wellness needs assessment it plans to use to develop a “health and well-being strategic plan.”
The university has collected three years of student health data and convened dozens of focus groups over the last year. The plan comes as college campuses nationally scramble to address a swell of students struggling with mental health woes.
That includes ISU, where more than a quarter of a 1,000-plus students polled last fall scored positive for suicidal risk. One in five of those ISU students screened in fall 2021 were in “serious psychological distress,” and more than half were experiencing loneliness, according to the ISU version of the National College Health Assessment.
But the campus health and well-being strategic plan in the works should focus not only on the prevalence and risk of things like anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, sleep behavior, substance abuse and sexual assault victimization, ISU student wellness director Brian Vanderheyden said. It should focus on health promotion and proactive measures to create a healthy campus environment, he said.
“Our hope is to continue to be able to work on a proposal around becoming a health-promoting university,” Vanderheyden said during a recent virtual panel discussion. “Part of that is thinking about how are we building out our infrastructure.”
Mental health needs
Data that ISU has and will continue to use to inform its needs-assessment report and well-being plan include the most recent ISU version of the National College Health Assessment, which polled 1,035 students in late September to early October 2021.
That assessment found less than half — 41 percent — of the ISU respondents evaluated on things like relationships, self-esteem, purpose and optimism earned a “positive mental health” score.
Those identifying as gender-nonconforming had the lowest percent reporting positive mental health at 21 percent, followed by those identifying as LGTBQ at 25 percent.
The more than half of all respondents who scored positive for loneliness reflected a national trend compelled by pandemic-forced isolation. Of all students screened, only 35 percent earned high resilience scores — indicating a person’s ability to cope with stress and “bounce back.”
More than 200 ISU students who participated in 27 focus groups this year signaled “mental health is significant to their campus success.”
“Students indicated a need for more faculty understanding and flexibility, as well as more counseling services, as potential ways to improve their well-being,” according to the findings. Those focus groups drafted five mental health-related recommendations:
- Improve multicultural representation in counseling and well-being services.
- Increase funding for student counseling services to improve access to appointments and to embed counselors into colleges across campus.
- Expand education for faculty and staff on how to support students’ mental health needs.
- Provide more classroom flexibility “to promote student well-being in times of crisis proactively.”
- And amplify mental health education and suicide prevention in hopes of reducing stigma and “help-seeking behaviors.”
In assessing campus health and student well-being, ISU also polled students on whether they had experienced sexual violence in the last year — using a broad definition, from being insulted or put down by a partner to being raped, stalked or sexually harassed.
One in five of the ISU students polled answered “yes” to at least one of 10 definitions of sexual violence. Among just women, a quarter said they’d been the victim of sexual violence in the last year and 30 percent who identify as LGTBQ reported as much.
A quarter of the polled students who identify as multicultural reported experiencing discrimination in the last year, and 36 percent in that group said they’d experienced a “microaggression.”
And nearly 60 percent of the female students polled said they feel unsafe in the Ames community at night, with 39 percent reporting feeling unsafe on the ISU campus after dark.
“Students most frequently named the campus climate around sexual violence, the high frequency of sexual assault timely warning emails, and the lack of campus transportation as negative impacts to their well-being related to power-based personal violence,” according to the focus groups.
Those students said emails administrators are required to send about sexual assaults on campus can have a negative impact on their mental health and well-being, as their frequency “is alarming.”
“They explained that the emails do not provide any information or follow-up about what has happened with the perpetrator, which increases students' levels of fear and anxiety and fear of reporting,” according to the focus group report.
The focus group students made several violence-based recommendations, including expand prevention efforts and education; amending timely sexual assault warnings to include follow-up expectations, limitations of what can be shared and “opt-out options”; and increase SafeRide — an Uber-like service — routes and options.
Substance use and abuse
Among the polled ISU students who had ever had any alcohol in their life, nearly one in five had engaged in moderate- to high-risk use, according to the assessment.
One in five of the male students who had consumed alcohol in the last 30 days drove while under the influence, one in four graduate students did so and 15 percent of all students who drank in the last month drove while under the influence, according to the assessment.
Nearly one in five students who drank in the last year said they’d done something they later regretted, and 22 percent reported experiencing “brown out” — defined as forgetting “where I was or what I did for short periods of time but can remember once someone reminds me.”
Among alcohol-consuming students who had six or more drinks the last time they socialized, men reported the highest percent at 33 percent. Nearly a third of all students felt it was OK to miss class if they were too hungover to go.
“Participants stated that the consumption of alcohol, nicotine, and marijuana is normalized by students, leading to them feeling peer pressure to engage in such activities,” the focus group students reported. “Students would like to see more activities offered on campus that are alternatives to drinking or using other substances.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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