Campus survey focuses on understanding mental health to help students thrive

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A recent survey was conducted on campus to understand mental health in BYU students. A report was written and submitted to BYU administration and this graphic was used for the title page. (Kiersten DeCook)

Students and faculty in the BYU public health department conducted a survey on mental health on campus to improve student mental health and wellness as part of the ThrYve initiative.

In December 2018, a tragic public suicide occurred on campus. Since then, many students, faculty and administration have sought change and improvement in student mental health. One group of students and faculty in the public health department joined a mental health coalition to better help students who struggle with mental illnesses.

The coalition morphed over the last two years to become what it is today: the ThrYve initiative. ThrYve is not a program or office on campus, but rather a commitment from BYU administration and faculty to help students thrive.

Associate Academic Vice President John Rosenberg said ThrYve is “an ethos, meaning a way of being with each other on campus. It promotes thriving of the institution and thriving of the individual.”

According to Rosenberg, the domains of thriving are based on research by Laurie Schreiner, a professor at Azusa Pacific University. There are five domains: engaged learning, academic determination, social connectedness, diverse citizenship, and positive perspective. BYU added a sixth element of spiritual confidence.

Thriving is a measure of an individual’s overall wellbeing. Aligning with the BYU mission statement, ThrYve hopes to assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life, said Rosenberg.

Public health professor Carl Hanson took the lead of the survey team and said they switched from a focus on “mental illness to mental wellness” to help achieve student thriving. “Thriving is much more than decreasing depression and anxiety. It includes success at BYU and achieving the mission of the university to help students achieve academically and move on into the world,” he said.

The public health department’s study focused on the mental health area of thriving by conducting a survey on mental illness, childhood experiences, life challenges and more. Students participated voluntarily. Once data was collected and analyzed, they wrote a report and shared it with Rosenberg to broaden the conversation on BYU’s efforts to help students thrive.

The purpose of the survey was to understand the current state of students’ mental health. “It’s important to understand the problem first before you try to create solutions,” psychology senior Emily Freeman said.

Freeman has a passion for mental health and increasing awareness of mental illness in society. She said she hopes sharing this research with the university will make changes on campus and enhance the mental wellness of students.

Director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) Steve Smith was heavily involved in the study and helped the team understand the root causes and triggers of mental health challenges. Together they discussed possible solutions they can implement to help students improve their mental health.

The sign located outside BYU CAPS office where students can go to receive support and help for any mental health challenge or crisis they might face. (Preston Crawley)

A major discovery of the study showed how improving cognitive appraisal and reappraisal skills decreases levels of anxiety and depression. According to Smith, cognitive appraisal is the ability to evaluate your thinking about a situation. Cognitive reappraisal is the ability to rethink a situation and find alternative solutions. He said choosing to look at situations with different perspectives can lead to different outcomes emotionally and result in a better mental state.

“BYU is a pressure cooker, and students respond to that differently,” Smith said. With the amount of pressure BYU puts on students, and students put on each other, Smith said he is not surprised anxiety and depression rates are high. He said individuals with predispositions to mental health conditions will feel the pressure, and it can trigger greater struggles for students.

The study gave the team a broad understanding of demographics and factors contributing to the challenges students face. Freeman said the study helped them identify the populations that are more vulnerable to mental health challenges and highlight which factors are the biggest contributors to mental illness.

The qualitative data — or intimate data as Smith calls it — showed what students are dealing with and how it’s affecting them. The report displays the relationship between depression and anxiety levels and many factors including religious struggles, race, sexual orientation, emotional regulation, adverse childhood experiences and more. Generally, negative experiences led to higher rates of depression or anxiety, while an increase in positive elements of life decreased anxiety and depression.

Smith said CAPS is working on implementing these findings to better help students who come to them for help. One step CAPS has taken is administering QPR training for suicide awareness and prevention. Many faculty, staff, students and administration have gone through the training and will continue to be.

He urges students to reach out for help during this pandemic. COVID-19 has created a “sedating effect” for students by forcing them to stay home and limiting their ability to connect. Smith said this is negatively impacting many individual’s mental health on top of the normal stresses of college.

“There is no wait for services at CAPS,” Smith said. Many resources are immediately available to students even when individual or small group meetings are booked up. The CAPS website has webpages for coping with COVID-19, stress management, self-help, suicidal concerns, crisis services and more.

BYU has also paid for every student to download the app Sanvello for free. Smith said Sanvello is a great resource of on-demand support for stress, depression and anxiety.

“Our goal is to help students cope more effectively in all areas,” Smith said.

BYU has many programs, resources and connections to help students enjoy their time at college and support them through the trials. “We don’t want students just to survive. We want them to thrive, ” said Rosenberg.

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