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Mental Health Support on Campus: Student-Run Groups Stepping Up


Student-run mental health groups are having a positive impact on college campuses, including reducing stigma and creating a better climate related to mental health care. That’s the conclusion of a new study looking at the peer-run Active Minds program on 12 college campuses in California. (1)

College is a time of much change and potential stress for many students, and the age at which many mental health issues first arise. An estimated 20 to 36 percent of college students are coping with some type of serious psychological distress. While many students have access to mental health services on campus, only about a third receive treatment. (1)

Among students seeking mental health treatment, the lifetime prevalence rates of threat-to-self characteristics (non-suicidal self-injury, serious suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts) increased for the seventh year in a row in 2017, according to a report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health. Anxiety and depression are the most common concerns among students seeking help, and the number seeking help for these has increased over the last 4 years. (2)

The more students know and understand mental health issues and the less stigma students face, the more likely they are to seek help for mental health concerns. Several nonprofit organizations are stepping up to raise awareness and offer support through peer-led groups on campuses.

Active Minds is a national nonprofit organization with student-run chapters on more than 400 college and high school campuses across the U.S. Active Minds chapters work to increase mental health awareness on campus, promote positive mental health, educate their peers about the signs and symptoms of mental health disorders, and encourage students to reach out for help when needed.


A recent study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry assessed the impact of the Active Minds efforts on college campuses. (3) According to the authors, “there is growing recognition of the importance of peers in mental health and suicide prevention programming on campus and expanding involvement of students in such peer-driven efforts.”

The researchers interviewed more than 1,000 students and found that greater familiarity with Active Minds was associated with increases in students’ knowledge about mental health and decreases in stigma about mental health. These changes were seen even among students with no direct involvement with Active Minds. Students who became directly involved with the organization were more likely over time to help their peers—to provide emotional support to peers and to connect someone with mental health struggles to professional help.

Project LETS, a national organization led by and for people with experiences with mental illness, disability and trauma, also provides support on college campuses. Peer-run chapters provide workshops and mental health training for faculty and administration.


In 2015, Project LETS established a pilot Peer Mental Health Advocate program, a peer support service for students living with mental health issues and for students who just need some support. The service is free and confidential. The trained peers provide one-on-one peer support, assistance with developing healthy coping mechanisms and links to resources. Project LETS has chapters at several schools including Brown University, Michigan State University, Bergen Community College and others.

At the University of Michigan, the Wolverine Support Network works to support student mental health and well-being through weekly, peer-facilitated groups and bi-weekly, stress-busting events. The weekly groups are free and confidential and are intended to offer students a chance to build self-awareness and engage honestly and openly with others. (4)

Lean On Me is another peer-support program that uses anonymous text messages to provide support. On campuses where the program is active, students can text the hotline and receive a response from a trained supporter from their school (phone numbers are encrypted to ensure anonymity). They can then continue the conversation for as long as they want. The program is not a crisis hotline, but a resource for students who need someone to talk to. Lean On Me was started at MIT and now has chapters at University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, University of Colorado, Denver and Penn State University.

Resources for College Students and Families


(1) Sontag-Padilla L, et al. Strengthening College Students’ Mental Health Knowledge, Awareness, and Helping Behaviors: The Impact of Active Minds, A Peer Mental health Organization. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2018, 57(7):500-507
(2) American College Health Association, National College Health Assessment – Fall 2017 report.
(3) Rand Corporation. Student-run mental health education efforts may improve college mental health climate. California study shows increase in students' knowledge and reduced stigma. Public Release: 27-JUN-2018.
(4) Davis, K. CPS Blog: Peer Support on Campus at University of Michigan. Mental Health America. February 5, 2018


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