Promoting Student Well-Being and Mental Health: the Career Center’s Role
By Michelle Tullier
When considering issues of student mental health and well-being, it is easy for a college or university career center to assume that those are primarily the domain of the counseling or health center. When a campus grapples with cultivating a positive culture that minimizes unhealthy stress and competition, it is easy for a career center to leave that challenge to the dean of students office or academic affairs leadership. But an environment in which students flourish is the responsibility of all, including career services.
A Climate of Stress on College Campuses
The Spring 2017 National College Health Assessment found that 87% of 63,497 students responding “felt overwhelmed by all [they] had to do” in the prior twelve months. Nearly 61% felt “overwhelming anxiety.” Fifty-seven percent experienced “more than average” or “tremendous” stress, with 28% finding a career-related issue “traumatic or very difficult to handle.”
In a study at SUNY Buffalo (O’Donnell, 2017), 49% of students indicated they endured stress over deciding on a major or career path. Students face increasing pressure to choose a lucrative major, achieve a high GPA, and land a great job (or graduate school acceptance, or fellowship) for a strong return on investment of their tuition dollars and to begin making a dent in loans.
A Call to Action for Career Services
If we in career services view ourselves as an essential part of a “community of care,” we stand to join in making a powerful difference in the flourishing of our students. We must examine the role we might inadvertently be playing in contributing to a stressful culture and identify ways we can help to shift the climate.
Recommendations for Contributing to a Culture of Student Flourishing
While a one-size-fits-all approach to minimizing stress around careers is not effective, and this list is not exhaustive, these recommendations are intended as a springboard for customization in a variety of institutions.
Mission and Message
- Use language in the career center’s mission that includes satisfaction (or meaning, fit, or related concepts) in any definitions of success outcomes. Example: “To provide career education, resources, and experiential opportunities to Georgia Tech students across all majors so that they are positioned to launch and sustain satisfying and successful careers that make a meaningful contribution to society.”
- Ensure that messaging around job search activities, such as career fairs and on-campus recruiting, does not magnify the sense of competition students already feel.
- Help students learn not just how to land a job but also how to function in the workplace. You will drop their stress level down a notch when they feel more prepared.
- Educate campus partners about your efforts to minimize career stress so that they become ambassadors of your message.
Inclusion and Integration
- Go beyond underrepresented student groups that are typically served in an intentional way (such as students of color, women in STEM, etc.) to students who might need new or fresh outreach. This may include homeless students, commuters, and transgender or non-gender conforming.
- Attend to the needs of all majors if your institution is dominated by one department or college. Connect with student groups and faculty, develop customized programming, and do active outreach to the areas with smaller student populations.
- Use inclusive language in your website, educational materials, and all other content.
- Integrate elements of wellness into materials and programs. Example: Include a mindfulness exercise in an interview prep or career fair prep workshop to help students learn how to calm jitters.
Reach and Resources
- Many career centers encourage student engagement early on, but this often amounts to not much more than overviews of career resources and providing a four-year career development plan. Instead, look for opportunities to shape students’ thinking about definitions of career success to reduce their stress levels. These opportunities range from new student orientation, to first-year experience seminars, through to graduation.
- Make it easy for students to access your services. Go where they are, holding workshops or advising sessions around campus, as well as live webinars. Use recorded webinars and videos so that students can “attend” any time.
- Get to know academic advisors and encourage them to refer students for career counseling when they are undecided about a career path or major, or considering making a change.
- Connect with parents to hear, and to try to alleviate, their concerns so that they don’t pass their anxiety on to the students. Publish helpful information in your institution’s family newsletter, or blog to parents. Make presentations during Family Weekend that go beyond the usual “career services show-and-tell” and instead address student well-being in career development.
Training and Touchpoints
- Career advising and career counseling are not psychotherapy. However, most institutions’ counseling centers are happy to provide training on mental health basics and suicide prevention.
- Have career center staff participate in “safe space” training for working with LGBTQIA students, even those who do not primarily interact with students.
- Remind employers that you expect them to comply with ethical recruiting standards, as established by NACE, the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Work with employers to change their practices of “exploding offers” – internship, co-op, or post-graduate job offers with unreasonably short deadlines for a student to accept or decline.
Career services professionals already work tirelessly to make differences in students’ lives. However, stress and mental health concerns on college and university campuses are real. We owe it to our students and their families to pause and examine how we can do more to promote a culture of flourishing rather than feeding one of unhealthy stress and competition. Student well-being does not have to be sacrificed for student career success outcomes.
American College Health Association. (2017). National college health assessment reference group report, spring 2017. Retrieved from http://www.acha-ncha.org/reports_ACHA-NCHAIIc.html
O’Donnell, N. (2017). Career counselors: On the front lines of battling student stress. Counseling Today. Retrieved from https://ct.counseling.org/2017/03/career-counselors-front-lines-battling-student-stress/
L. Michelle Tullier, PhD, is Executive Director of the Center for Career Discovery and Development at Georgia Tech and is on the faculty of the Georgia Tech Honors Program, where she teaches an undergraduate course in social science perspectives of purposeful work. Her thirty-plus years in career services include regional leadership roles with Right Management and career counseling at New York University and Barnard College. She is the author of nine published books, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Overcoming Procrastination (Alpha/Penguin, 2012). Michelle holds a BA from Wellesley College and the MA and PhD in counseling psychology from UCLA. She can be contacted at email@example.com.