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Encourage Help-Seeking Behaviors and Reduce Stigma

Help seeking is a significant problem on many college and university campuses. Although the impact of poor mental health can be reduced or eliminated with early and ongoing support, many studies have shown that students with emotional difficulties do not always seek treatment, and those who do tend to dropout prematurely. Stigma, or negative attitudes towards people with mental illness, seriously reduces students’ ability to seek help for mental health problems. And once in treatment, stigma may decrease the likelihood that students will continue to use these supports or services. Thus, any attempt to increase student help-seeking must also focus on reducing stigma.

Many professionals think about help-seeking as a process, consisting of several distinct but related behaviors. In order to seek help, students must begin by thinking there is a problem requiring professional attention. Perhaps most importantly, they must identify the problem as a mental health problem. Once a student reaches out for help, they must decide where to seek help and also from whom. For example, students may turn to informal help sources such as roommates, friends, instructors, or residence staff. They may also seek assistance from formal help sources such as counseling or general health center staff. When students do seek help, they will continue to make decisions about the extent to which this help is still needed.

Students’ ability to carry out these help-seeking behaviors rests on a multitude of factors. Studies have shown that students’ knowledge, attitudes, previous help-seeking experiences, and perceptions about the severity of the problem will influence these help-seeking behaviors. But their help-seeking behaviors also depend on a host of environmental and campus-related factors, including the nature and extent of mental health supports or services available on campus and within the community. Sometimes it is only through these external sources that students are able to obtain the supports and services they desperately need.

Campuses can play a pivotal role in facilitating student help-seeking and reducing campus-wide stigma. Toward this end, campuses can conduct educational programming activities to increase student and other stakeholder/gatekeeper knowledge about mental illness and how it can be effectively treated. Often, campuses can have counseling center staff or other mental health professionals conduct these outreach and training activities. Some campuses can also focus on reducing stigma through specific and targeted campus activities. These activities sometimes involve connecting students with other students or adults who have mental health problems. In fact, exposure to people with mental illness is considered to be one of the most effective ways of reducing stigmatizing attitudes and behaviors.

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