How Mainstay’s partners prioritize student mental health and belonging

Kelly Hughes
Kelly Hughes

September 29, 2021

From elevated stress levels to feelings of isolation and nervousness about re-entering social situations, the pandemic has amplified mental health concerns at colleges and universities across the country. Studies indicate that these challenges may be getting worse as students’ mental health needs have skyrocketed in recent months — with 57% of college-aged Americans reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

If you’re thinking about ways to support your students’ mental health in this time of uncertainty, that means you’re already on the right track. But what can you actually do to make a positive difference in your students’ lives? Cultivating a sense of belonging is the first step. Helping students feel like they belong at your school is crucial because it is also a key indicator of whether students will persist through their academic journey

In our recent webcast, “Overcoming uncertainty with student engagement,” we explored ways to build authentic connections and create a deeper sense of belonging with higher education leaders at two of the nation’s most innovative institutions when it comes to student engagement. Mainstay partners, Allison Calhoun-Brown of Georgia State University and Sue Maxam of Pace University, explained their strategies for increasing students’ feelings of acceptance, respect, and value during times of crisis. 

Here are some of the insights they shared. Hopefully these will help spark important discussions around ways you and your colleagues can cultivate an environment that prioritizes wellbeing, inclusion, and belonging at your institution.  

How to support students’ mental health

Show students that you care about them

During the height of COVID-19, Pace University used a behaviorally intelligent chatbot to send out friendly wellbeing check-in texts that asked students, “How are you doing?” Students were prompted to respond by choosing an emoji that best represented their feelings. When students indicated feelings of sadness or frustration, the team followed up instantly with empathetic words of encouragement. When necessary, the bot automatically connected students with a live expert to provide personal support. 

“We knew that mental health issues — from stress to anxiety — were through the roof, and we didn’t want anyone to fall through the cracks,” said Sue.

For this generation of students, a cry for help may look like a simple text message. In some cases, students are more comfortable communicating their real feelings to a supportive, unbiased party like a chatbot, than to a human. Having the ability to be constantly present, actively listen for sensitive topics, and respond to students’ concerns and needs in real-time is critical to support their mental health. 

From these interactions, the Pace team learned that two specific students were experiencing some degree of suicidal ideation. Their bot automatically escalated those conversations to trained experts immediately, which enabled them to intervene within minutes and get the students the critical resources and one-on-one support they needed.   

“That was because of the bot,” Sue said. “I don’t think those students would have reached out to a human. It’s very interesting because students will sometimes tell (the bot) things that they’ve never told anyone else.”

Sue continued, “We tell students all the time that we care about them, but when we send this message through the bot, and they see us act on what they’re telling us, they know we truly care about them.”

Help students feel like they belong at your college

Developing a sense of belonging for every student is an essential piece of the student engagement puzzle. Yet, conventional measures of engagement may not consider a student’s background, race, socioeconomic status, or identity. It’s important for institutions to analyze how engagement can look different for various student populations. This is particularly critical for traditionally underrepresented students (those from low-income backgrounds, first-generation college-goers, and students of color) who report less of a sense of belonging than continuing-generation students and white students at four-year institutions.

“Many of GSU’s students are first-generation and low-income,” said Allison. “We recognize that having the necessary support and communicating effectively matters a lot for the experience they are going to have at our institution. And we can’t be casual about that.”

Yet, these interactions don’t necessarily need to happen in person. Evidence shows that students benefit from receiving support through technology, as well — which can make engagement easier to measure. For example, GSU’s chatbot, “Pounce,” provides students with the right resources at the right times. By factoring background and identity into their engagement equation, the GSU team has boosted enrollment by 3.3%, closed the “summer melt” gap by 21.4%, and improved FAFSA completion and registration rates. Interestingly, first-generation and Pell-receiving GSU students have sent 9.4% and 31.7% more messages to Pounce, respectively — which indicates that this approach resonates particularly well with underserved students.

Build in support systems for students

To foster a deep sense of belonging from the time a student enrolls at a university to the time they graduate, it’s critical to create a culture that enables student support systems for every step along their journey.

During the webcast, Allison said, “Students are under a tremendous amount of stress. It’s hard to live with this level of uncertainty and concern for our own health and the health of our loved ones. It’s been a very challenging time.” 

“But the good news is that the university has lots of resources to support students,” she continued. “It’s a matter of linking those students to those resources and helping them understand that there is support available.”

This support goes beyond traditional mental health and wellness resources. Personalized text messaging gives GSU students a safe, judgment-free way to communicate needs related to food insecurity, housing, emergency assistance, and more.

Delivering real-time support through technology can be just as effective as in-person engagement — but your message really matters. For example, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Come on down for free food — take as much as you want!” is a fun way to spread the word about a food pantry on campus without making students feel stigmatized.

Sue also noted that touchpoints like this go a long way in helping students feel like they’re embraced, supported, involved, and respected — and most importantly, that they feel truly valued. This type of support has a meaningful impact on mental health and overall success throughout students’ academic journey and beyond. 

Prioritize mental health with authentic engagement

Mainstay’s free guide, “How to define student engagement at your college” is your handbook for building belonging into your school’s mental health and engagement strategy. Download your copy today to explore how you can redefine student engagement at your institution to connect with students in ways that support their mental health, sense of belonging, and ability to succeed long term. 


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