• Issue #32

We Are Responsible for Student Mental Health

Abstract art featuring red, orange, blue, and greenish yellow colors.

Digital Marketing’s Role in Student Mental Health and Well-being

According to the American Psychological Association, “By nearly every metric, student mental health is worsening.” They continue:

During the 2020–2021 school year, more than 60% of college students met the criteria for at least one mental health problem, according to the Healthy Minds Study, which collects data from 373 campuses nationwide. In another national survey, almost three-quarters of students reported moderate or severe psychological distress.

Based on the dates, you may wonder if these numbers reflect the anxiety and stress produced during the pandemic. It may be too early to say. But, research from 2022 suggests things haven’t gotten much better. In the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment, the Undergraduate Student Reference Group (Spring 2022) finds that

  • 49.4 percent of students report feeling moderate levels of stress
  • 30 percent of students report feeling high levels of stress
  • 34.9 percent of students report experiencing anxiety
  • 27 percent report experiencing depression

These are sometimes hard figures to wrap our minds around. But, as communicators, it is essential that we grapple with these figures and reflect on the ways we can foster more mental well-being in our work. I realize this is a tall order. But what if I told you there were things you could do right now that could help? Wouldn’t you try?

Here is a short list of things as a digital strategist, you can do to support student mental health and well-being in your work.

1. Continually test and refine your user experience

A confusing, frustrating, or inefficient user experience can be overwhelming for just about anyone. It can feel even worse for someone experiencing a challenge to their health and well-being. It behooves us to continually test and update our website content, design, and site organization. Bonus if you test with current students. You contribute to their feelings of being listened to and to their sense of agency over their own experiences.

2. Use trauma-informed user experience principles

User experience research tends to focus on delighting the user. Sometimes I think we’ve chosen the wrong word. Delight is so evocative of enjoyment, pleasure, and surprise. But there are other ways of thinking about positive web experiences. Getting to well-written information that you expect to be there, and being able to follow it easily might not cause you to shriek with happiness. But, it can de-stress you and add to your feelings of competency and trust.

Meanwhile, inducing a feeling of surprise might mean hijacking the user’s self-led journey or forcing a discovery process on a user intent on finding something specific. Consider your site’s content, design, and organization to allow for delight in moments of discovery while protecting user autonomy when they are in finding mode.

Other aspects of trauma-informed user experience include:

  • Progressive disclosure
  • Minimalism
  • Providing calm and safety
  • Empowerment

Consider adopting trauma-informed UX principles in your communications and digital strategy.

3. Involve your offices of student mental health in the review process for your emails

Your institution likely has an office for student mental health with a cadre of experts willing to help improve the student experience at multiple touch points. Make inroads with their experts and share your communication plans and strategies. Ask for their opinions on where and when students could feel anxiety or disappointment in your messages.

You might discover issues in:

  • Voice and Tone - example - your financial aid offers are too peppy for students making major financial decisions.
  • Frequency and Timing - example - you’re sending too many reminders to register, or your registration reminders are hitting at the same time students are studying for finals.
  • Findability - example - students are looking for emergency funds. The link’s current location keeps students from deluging your Office of Student Finance. But some students are suffering, and others are slipping through the cracks.

By building these inroads with the office that supports students through challenges, you’ll get a sense of trending questions and frustrations, and you can find the right strategy to address them.

The Responsibility for Student Mental Health

The responsibility for Student Mental Health is shared by all of us in higher education. As a digital strategist and communications professional, you can play a major role in ensuring that students find the well-being and support they need through effective content, design, and site organization, along with thoughtful communication planning. This is the kind of empathy that will make students feel at home and in the right place.

- Kristin Van Dorn