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Beyond the Walls of Academia: Collaboration With Non-academic Partners Leads to Greater Innovation (and Healthier Campuses)

Emerging platforms and companies provide a unique opportunity for universities to reimagine how they care for their students’ mental health.

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Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

Universities have all of the ingredients for radical, transformative change: brilliant scholars, apt researchers, curious students, funding… Just add water, right?

Not exactly. Anyone who works in higher education can speak to the painstakingly slow process of change, the abundance of bureaucratic red tape that stifles momentum and blocks the implementation of innovative practices, programs and policies.

It is undeniable that college student mental health is an increasing concern. Universities no longer have the luxury of time to assemble another task force or hold another forum. The acuity of need is high and institutional inaction will lead to grave consequences for the health of  universities and students alike.

It is also true that universities are not mental health institutions and do not have the internal resources to provide long-term individual counseling to all of the students who need care.  So why aren’t universities more open to partnerships with new platforms that can build capacity for counseling centers to meet students’ needs?

We understand this paradigm when it comes to mental health services themselves. When people are struggling with their own internal experience, we direct them toward therapy. Therapists, existing outside of the individual, listen to clients and support them in untangling their experiences and developing coping skills for well-being. We don’t expect people to do it alone; in fact, we don’t always believe they can.

Why can’t universities apply this same model to their own challenges? The answer to addressing growing mental health needs on campuses that were built for students who look very different than students today is not to do more of the same. Students today are asking that we create services for them, intentionally designed with their unique needs and intersectionality in mind. Schools engage with outside sponsors and commercial companies for many of their needs (e.g. campus technology, learning platforms, dining services). Counseling centers have looked outward for crisis text lines and Mental Health First Aid trainings. But when it comes to offering individual counseling, many universities have opted to maintain the same short-term care model — one that refers out higher needs without a mechanism for accountability and allows too many students to fall through the cracks.

New thinkers, platforms and companies — both internally and externally —are offering to support universities in their missions. They are knocking at our doors and we turn them away. New programs, models of care, partnerships, and ways of conceptualizing and addressing student well-being are so often ignored. The insularity of universities in our approach to change is limiting our capacity to adequately and comprehensively support student well-being. We’ve innovated out of necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic, why not continue embracing adaptation and searching for new ways to serve our students? This is an exciting opportunity for us to be more open, more collaborative, and more creative in how we care for students.

I started a new role at the growing college mental health start-up, Mantra Health, and I’ve been reflecting on this hesitancy toward non-academic partnerships. I am trying to be conscious and critical of what comes up for me when I see an “outsider” email lingering unread in my university inbox. The services they offer would probably make our teaching and processes easier and they would definitely offer new ways of connecting with and supporting students. And yet, we denounce them to the land of virtual trash without so much as a second thought. So what is it? What are we afraid will happen if we build relationships and collaborate with new players? Why do we assume that the best practices we search for to inform our work and policies can only come from within higher ed?

We’re overwhelmingly busy, yes. Our inboxes are a never-ending layered-cake of messages, true. But I think we’re missing opportunities for transdisciplinary collaboration and innovation because we assume that others can’t help us.  

Emilie Wapnick’s 2015 TED Talk popularized the idea of “muli-potentialites,” curious people with varied interests whose transdisciplinary experiences enable them to create, build, and innovate. When we bring more voices to the table — whether that be through diversity of thought, race, gender identity, sexuality, or professional experience — the result is inevitably more holistic and creative than the work of a unilateral, internal approach.

One of the reasons I believe the tech industry is so successful is that it understands how to leverage the strength of transprofessionalism: They seek out, learn from, and listen to people outside of their direct circles (though, likely, through very expensive headphones). Budget is absolutely a barrier, especially during this pandemic. Still, allocation of resources communicates an institution’s priorities. If we don’t invest in caring for students, they will feel uncared for and they will be uncared for, making them less likely to succeed personally and academically.

Higher education colleagues: We do not need to know everything. And that is wonderful, because it relieves us of carrying the burden of solving everything alone. It means we need to look for and listen to innovative voices that can bring diverse perspectives to our work and missions. If we can start to see the strength in allowing “outsiders” into the mote-guarded walls of our ivory towers, we will create much more sustainable, interesting, powerful, and revolutionary change. If we can be excited by the promise that technology, collaboration, activism, and fresh vision bring to our institutions, we can cultivate much healthier campuses that truly serve the students of today.

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More Thrive Global on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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