College students exist in campus environments that are anything but solitary, and social media apps would love for us to believe that they are more connected than ever. Yet, a recent survey showed that 54% of college students report feeling lonely. A mass of new research is setting off alarm bells about the mental health of American teens, indicating crisis-level rates of loneliness, sadness, depression, stress and suicidal ideation. Some of these findings may reflect a lingering effect of the pandemic, but the problem appears to be much broader. Mental health problems have been steadily increasing for the last 10 years.
Poor mental health can cause students to disengage socially and academically, miss classes and assignments and, ultimately, put students at risk of failing out of school.
Student mental health struggles also pose a significant burden for staff and faculty, who struggle to support students while managing their own compassion fatigue, workload and burnout.
Students who form connections are happier
Although mental health is a multifaceted issue, an abundance of research has demonstrated that social relationships directly correlate with well-being. For example, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest study of happiness, has been tracking participants’ psychological adjustment since 1938. According to the study, the biggest predictor of happiness is the quality of one’s relationships. The research tells us that we can prevent the development of mental health problems by improving social connectedness.
Addressing college student mental health will undoubtedly require a whole-campus, multipronged approach. One of the foundations of that approach is to create opportunities for sustained, authentic and meaningful connections between students and their peers.
Faculty and staff can use the following three activities to structure and foster student connection. Providing such opportunities across settings (i.e., in classes, dorms and extracurricular clubs) will help students develop a sense that they belong — and matter — on their campus.
This adapted version of the classic group icebreaker uses the speed dating format to make sharing a bit friendlier for introverted students. Rather than speaking in front of a group, students engage one-on-one. The subtle shift in structure is enough to alleviate performance anxiety and create a context for more authentic self-disclosure.
The activity is intended for students meeting each other for the first time, but it can be surprisingly powerful when used with a group that has known each other for a while longer.
This icebreaker can last 10 or more minutes, depending on group size.
Silent listening with a partner
We are constantly bombarded with information and stimuli such as text messages, emails and social media notifications. In this simple activity, students pair up to take turns listening — and only listening. For most students, this will be the only time they’ve truly listened and been listened to in days, weeks or months.
This activity is easy to orchestrate and adapt. Use informal get-to-know prompts for co-curricular settings. For classroom use, instructors can make the prompts specific to academic content.
This activity can last 15 to 30 minutes.
Hopes and fears
What students see of their peers’ lives most often is a curated set of Instagrammable moments. In that context, it’s hard not to fall into the mental trap of believing everyone else is living joyous, perfect lives without difficult experiences.
Today’s teens report persistent pressure to present well, and they crave opportunities to turn off their phone filters and be authentic. This activity’s power is in providing the structure for students to be vulnerable with each other. It allows students to drop the shiny veneer and can set the stage for sincerely genuine conversations.
This activity can last 20 to 30 minutes.
These activities are designed to be easily implemented and applicable across classroom and co-curricular settings. Faculty and staff are encouraged to try one of these activities, especially if the role of a facilitator is new territory.
Perhaps the door to connection might open in directions and places across campus never imagined.
Mylien Duong is the senior director of research at the Constructive Dialogue Institute, which offers free resources for K-12 and higher education educators and is an evidence-based education nonprofit helping students, staff and faculty build mindsets and skills to communicate, collaborate and address conflict across differences. Duong has received over $17 million in grant funding, published over 40 scientific articles and book chapters, and led research to develop social-emotional learning programming for teachers in K-12 schools.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.