Thirty-nine percent of students in the U.S. deal with some sort of mental health problem, according to data from the Healthy Minds Survey. This study highlights a common factor that limits students from thriving in college: loneliness. Loneliness can have serious effects on mental and physical well-being and is a major risk factor for depression, according to an article in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research.
On top of that, moving to college is incredibly difficult. It’s a new environment, you likely don’t know many people — if anyone — and at any class level, you’re likely faced with tremendous academic, professional, social and internal stressors. At USC, all of this is even more daunting, considering there are 47,500 high-achieving students from all around the world surrounded by a dynamic, busy city with millions of residents. It’s a big transition for everyone, no matter their background.
This considered, students are commonly told to “find their community on campus” to adjust to the new environment. But why is this so important? Some say it’s to gain professional skills or pursue intellectual interests. Others say it’s to make yourself more marketable to graduate programs and build your resume. While these can be attractive advantages, the most immeasurable benefit to finding your community on campus is building emotional connections and peer-to-peer support systems that, according to research published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, help limit the feeling of loneliness and support the goal of thriving.
As crises arise, students first turn to those in their groups for support. Peers are more approachable, more relatable and more accessible. They understand you at greater depths than most and can empathetically relate to the stressors of college life. This is why it is critical for student groups to designate a director of member well-being position that seeks to empower their members through education, connections to resources and an organizational culture of peer-to-peer caring.
With numerous involvement opportunities at USC through the more than 1,100 registered student organizations, 50 Greek chapters and large communities through USC Athletics, recreational sports, student government, the Admissions Center and more, student communities are ideal places to promote well-being.
In each of these communities, students can find a sense of belonging in an otherwise overwhelming, big-college environment. Organizations allow students to build connections, support systems and friends, among myriad other professional, academic and extracurricular benefits. Taking part in student groups has incredible well-being benefits. According to the Bringing Theory to Practice Project, a research initiative in which USC participates, students joining together for a common cause helps “with feelings of self-efficacy, self-confidence, self-esteem and satisfaction with daily activities.” In turn, when personal and community needs arise, students are likely to turn to their organizations for assistance. Research suggests that the causal relationship between stress and loneliness can be buffered by friend-to-friend support networks — meaning your peers are the ones you’re likely to first turn to and are the ones to first support you.
By national data, students are increasingly self-reporting declining mental health over the last few decades. Meanwhile, universities including USC work to expand support services, such as implementing more-accessible counseling and intervention services. For a large school like USC, the only way to address emotional well-being and support the reduction of suicide and substance abuse is to work at a University-wide level.
USC offers many support services through groups like Student Health, Student Affairs, Campus Wellbeing and Education, student government and academic departments but a big gap for students in achieving a sense of thriving — apart from the benefits of joining a student community — is a lack of awareness about professional resources. Currently, many of the aforementioned departments are making incredible efforts and strides in their resource promotion and outreach. However, there is still a gap between administrative units and the student body due to students naturally reaching out to friends in their communities as a first step and sometimes as their only step. This is particularly true if they are unaware of resources on campus. Thus, it is critical to take a peer-led, grassroots and University-wide approach in supporting the well-being and thriving of all students.
One approach is for student groups — RSOs, Greek chapters and other student communities alike — to create a director of member well-being position in their respective organizations. With the right education from the University, directors of member well-being would be aware of on- and off-campus resources and be trained to direct their members to the appropriate support systems, which can help students work through stressors and identify solutions to crises.
The benefits of this type of role are three-fold. One, given there are 1,100 RSOs and dozens of other student communities, thousands of students would have a heightened responsibility to be aware of well-being resources and to help lead peer-to-peer resource awareness as well as a support network. Two, USC departments, such as Student Health, would be able to more easily identify people to reach out to and more effectively connect students from across campus with critical resources. And three, students would be able to identify a designated peer who could confidently guide them to professional support services.
As of now, Undergraduate Student Government, in discussion with USC Student Health, is working on health promotion and outreach strategies, which include well-being training modules for students and RSOs. On top of this, as some organizations — such as the Panhellenic Council and many of its chapters — have already begun to create the director of member well-being position, it is imperative to take into consideration the well-being and support ecosystem surrounding the position itself.
The director should by no means be solely responsible for carrying the weight of all members’ needs or fixing students’ circumstances. Instead, they should play an accessible, guiding role in connecting their members to professional services. Some of these resources include Crisis Support and Intervention, THRIVE: Foundations of Well-being and Mindful USC — which reaches more than 7,000 people per year according to Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni — among other services like counseling and mental health. The University should ensure directors go through a training module as well as provide consistent touchpoints to check in and provide personalized assistance. Where relevant and possible, student governing groups like USG should also play a supportive role with these directors and ensure there are adequate resources and communication from the University.
Creating these roles will help pair tight-knit student communities with resource providers, ensuring that as many students as possible are resource-aware and feel comfortable asking for help through the backing of their peers. With such a system, students can better help each other access valuable resources at USC. In turn, these communities, which already encourage belonging and thriving in their own ways, can also connect students to critical professional support services, further empowering the well-being of all students.
Trenton Stone is the USG President writing about ongoing and upcoming USG initiatives. The column, “President’s Corner,” runs every other Tuesday.