Incorporating Resilience Building and Management into Mental Health Support Services for College Students

Megan Kennedy, director of the Resilience Lab at the University of Washington, discusses the role resilience can play in college students’ mental health management – from everyday life, to COVID-19 stressors, racism, and more.

Meeting the Moment – Addressing Mental Health Needs for All Students During the Pandemic 

Over the last year and a half, it has been one stressor after another for college students: a global pandemic that has turned their lives upside down, stress over grades and remote learning, disrupted internships and career uncertainty, financial struggles and a lack of housing stability in many cases, ongoing attacks on our democracy and voting rights, and the collective trauma of facing racism and other systems of oppression on a daily basis. All of these things impact the mental health and well-being of our students. So, supporting the whole student and promoting resilience have always been important — but they are essential now if we’re going to meet this moment.  

The Key Components of Learned Resilience 

Most of us are familiar with the traditional definition of resilience: an ability to bounce back from hardship or adjust to change. But one of the most important things to understand about resilience is that it can be learned; what we think, do, and pay attention to can change the structure and function of our brains. In our work at the Resilience Lab, we often focus on four key components of resilience: mindfulness, growth mindset, gratitude, and self-compassion.  

Mindfulness supports people in moving from a state of autopilot to a place of greater awareness or more presence in the moment. When we bring our attention to each individual moment and notice our response to it, we build resilience.  

Growth mindset is the belief that we can all grow our knowledge and skills through our own effort and help from others. Research has shown that people who adopt a growth mindset tend to embrace challenges that help them learn, are typically less afraid to fail, and are more likely to put in consistent effort to succeed.  

Gratitude is an appreciation for and acknowledgment of the goodness and the good things in our lives — often paired with recognition that the source of this goodness lies partially outside of ourselves.  

Self-compassion allows you treat yourself with the same kindness and care that you would extend to a close friend. Dr. Kristin Neff, one of the world’s leading self-compassion researchers, breaks this concept down into three key components: showing kindness to yourself — instead of self-judgment; seeing your failures/setbacks as part of the universal experience of being human; and responding to painful thoughts and feelings in a balanced way instead of over-identifying with them. 

While these key components are a starting point to begin resilience-building work, we must also understand that it cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. What resonates with one person may land entirely differently for someone else — especially when it comes to different trauma histories, different relationships with identities and how we navigate the world, what sort of stressors we’re facing at school and in our lives outside of school, and our own attitudes around mental health and what it means to be well.  

Personal context matters, which is why social connection plays such a vital role in building resilience –giving students space to share life experiences with one another for ongoing support.  

How Peer Support and Social Connection Encourage Student Resilience  

Connection to others is fundamental to belonging, and researchers have identified it as a core psychological need. Social connection has been shown to improve student retention, motivation, and academic performance. In a university setting, peer-to-peer support is a critical ingredient in establishing that sense of connectedness. It can reduce feelings of isolation and promote compassion – it reminds students of their common humanity and helps them feel understood and valued by one another.  

Additionally, students with marginalized identities often report how difficult it can be to connect with counselors or providers who do not understand their lived experiences. As we continue to develop solutions to address this problem — including hiring and retaining more diverse teams within university counseling and health centers — we know that student affinity spaces and peer support groups can help bridge the gap and offer opportunities for students to find connection and healing in one another. 

So how do we help? 

At the University of Washington, we’re working on a new partnership between the Resilience Lab — which I lead — and the Center for Communication, Difference, and Equity, which has been doing powerful work facilitating intergenerational dialogues around race and identity and developing tools to combat intersectional racism. We realized that our work is intrinsically linked; we can’t truly build a culture of well-being at our university without disrupting the racist systems and institutional practices that create barriers to thriving. So we’re developing a program, Resistance through Resilience, that brings an anti-racist perspective to mindfulness and compassion-based practices while also bringing mindfulness and resilience concepts to racial justice work. In bridging this work, our goal is to help students, faculty, and staff nourish themselves and build resilience as they confront everyday oppression. 

The Road to Resilience  

Now more than ever, we must focus on supporting the whole student and promoting resilience.  

We need a culture change around resilience and well-being at colleges and universities. We can’t rely exclusively on traditional mental health services and crisis intervention. We need to be engaged across the continuum of care — including prevention efforts that support students upstream. That means inviting everyone on campus to consider their own role in advancing this work: in the classroom, in academic advising sessions, at department meetings, and through campus programs and centers that create a sense of community and belonging — just to name a few examples. 

At the individual level, that could mean offering programs and training opportunities where students can develop the skills to respond to stress more effectively, better understand and manage their emotions, and build more compassion for themselves and others. There is significant evidence that supporting students in this way can improve their response to symptoms of anxiety and depression and increase their overall sense of well-being. But we also need to address the environmental and systemic stressors that harm our students. At every level of our universities, we can’t shy away from difficult conversations about the ways in which our own institutions, policies, and teaching practices may be contributing to students’ distress — particularly students of color, queer and trans students, students with disabilities, and students who hold other marginalized identities. 

Where Togetherall Fits in 

Togetherall continues to work in partnership with universities to offer scalable enhancements to already existing mental health support programs on campus – it’s a 24/7 anonymous platform and moderated by licensed clinicians, allowing students to access peer-to-peer support whenever they need it most. Platforms like Togetherall promote sharing of student lived experiences and help students identify with other students facing similar challenges. In fact, 93% of Togetherall users report an improvement in their well-being as a result of connecting with others via the peer-to-peer platform, and 64% say they share because it is anonymous. The platform also reaches a diverse student population across ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, nationality, religion – as 48% of registered users of Togetherall identify as BIPOC, 5% as trans or non-binary, and 22% are over the age of 25.  

I like that I can relate to others in a private sense. It is also a nice place to let some of my emotions or thoughts out without being judged. It was very validating to interact with people going through similar problems, and to give and receive advice from others.

Student user of Togetherall 

Over 350 universities, colleges and education institutions use Togetherall. Contact us to learn more about Togetherall or sign up to get a closer look at the platform.