Which mental health strategies should be embraced—or avoided? Check the data

Peer support programs can entice students who don't feel accepted, understood or motivated in traditional care routines.

Colleges need to leverage data-driven mental health services to cut through the noise and effectively treat their students, wages a new report by the American Council on Education (ACE).

“What Works for Improving Mental Health in Higher Education” dispels lackluster mental health service strategies and advises college leaders on which evidence-backed intervention strategies will improve counselors’ efficacy.

While Healthy Minds Study found that the percentage of students receiving mental treatments has doubled in the last decade, mental health remains an increasingly prominent issue among college students. ACE finds that this is partially due to the current literature evaluating mental practices and the campus dialogues surrounding student mental health operate in silos from one another. As a result, progress is disjointed.

ACE utilized a comprehensive review of campus interventions strategies from various academic fields and journals to make its recommendations. As campus communities consider more proactive measures to student mental health, the council first recommends utilizing data-supported models to drive action and measure progress.

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Strategies with proven effectiveness

Skill-training interventions (extensive evidence)

Supervised student practice encourages the development of social, emotional and coping skills through behavioral rehearsal and supportive feedback. Such programs, such as mindfulness, boast consistently positive evidence improving social-emotional skills, enhancing self-perception, reducing emotional stress and mental health symptoms and improving sleep.


This method can identify at-risk individuals struggling with symptoms of anxiety, depression and suicide risk. However, screenings are only helpful if campuses are resourced with the services they believe would most greatly assist the identified students’ needs.

Means restriction

Add fixtures to the campus environment to prevent self-harm, such as nets on bridges and rooftops.

Revise or discontinue

Psychoeducational interventions (minimally effective)

These target students’ knowledge of stress and mental health issues to identify symptoms, adopting a “knowledge is power” approach. ACE recommends this strategy is helpful as part of a multi-component intervention rather than a primary or independent approach to improving student outcomes.

Gatekeeper training (questionable effectiveness)

This method seeks to skill students to identify community members in distress and connect them with the correct avenues for intervention. While gatekeeper training has improved students’ confidence in initiating intervention for those in need, no literature suggests that it improves their behaviors.

Showing promise but needs review

While few intervention techniques exist that have been extensively reviewed and supported by academic journals, there are many more that have shown promising—though not convincing—results.

One promising example includes peer support programs, in which two meta-analyses deduced that it helped significantly decrease depressive symptoms at the same rate as professional-led interventions. Peer support programs can also entice students who don’t feel accepted, understood or motivated in traditional care routines. This method also lends to a cascading effect to another promising yet not fully founded intervention technique: cultivating a sense of belonging.

Other emerging strategies to tackle mental health include:

  • Reduce stressors associated with students’ learning, testing, and the classroom environment
  • Mentoring and coaching
  • Post-crisis intervention
  • Prevent discrimination and micro-aggressions
  • Increased financial aid packages

How can your institution begin developing evidence-backed strategies?

ACE recommends that the strongest way to develop a no-nonsense package to alleviating student mental health concerns is collaborating with policymakers, foundations, philanthropists and even the private sector; it takes a village. With that in mind, here is their blueprint.

  1.  Develop and maintain a centralized database of evidence.
  2. Provide active support for decision-makers such as campus leaders and administrators.
  3. Enhance incentives for using evidence to inform practices.
  4. Invest in innovative research to address the evidence gaps.
  5. Develop and strengthen the networks of practitioners and researchers.

Overall, ACE posits that developing students’ mental health with scientifically backed strategies not only strengthens the community, but it also reverberates back to the institution and community. Colleges and universities earn more tuition revenue due to increased retention, and more graduating students increases the skilled workforce, bolstering the U.S. economy.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and Florida Gator alumnus. A graduate in journalism and communications, his beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene, and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador, and Brazil.

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