Peer activities may improve college students’ mental health behaviors

Photo of Bradley Stein, MD, 2018
Bradley D. Stein

College students who became involved with a peer-run organization focusing on mental health were likely to improve their knowledge of mental health and reduce stigma, according to recently published study results in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

“In this longitudinal study that followed 1,129 college students over the course of a single academic year, we found that increased familiarity with Active Minds a student-led organization aimed at teaching peers about mental health issues and decreasing stigma was associated with increases in students’ perceived knowledge and reduction in stigma surrounding mental health,” Bradley D. Stein, MD, PhD, a senior physician scientist at RAND Corp, told Infectious Diseases in Children. “Moreover, students who actively engaged with Active Minds were more likely to provide emotional support to peers and connect others to professional help.”

Undergraduate students from 12 California campuses (66% women) completed three online surveys during the 2016-2017 academic year. All campuses involved included a chapter of Active Minds, a national nonprofit organization that has more than 400 student-run chapters on college and high school campuses across the United States. The surveys measured familiarity with Active Minds, as well as mental health attitudes, behaviors and perceived mental health knowledge.

Among the students — who had been on campus an average of 1.94 years — 20% were white, 42% were Asian, 27% were Hispanic/Latino and 11% were other races or ethnicities.

The students were classified into groups based on their familiarity and involvement with the Active Minds program.

Most students (63%) were considered low engagement at study baseline and were more likely to be male and Asian and less likely to have had experiences with mental health-related issues.

Students who increased familiarity with Active Minds had increased perceived knowledge of mental illness signs, support and resources, and decreased stigma over time (both P  <  .001). Students who became involved with Active Minds reported increases in perceived knowledge (P  <  .001) and helping behaviors.

The level of baseline engagement with Active Minds affected students’ familiarity and involvement later. Students who began the study with low engagement with the group reported decreased stigma and improved perceived mental health knowledge. Students who had moderate baseline engagement with Active Minds reported that an increase in involvement with the group was associated with providing additional emotional support and connecting other students to services over time. Those students who were in the high engagement group reported no association with increased familiarity or involvement over time.

“Clinicians should know that addressing the mental health needs of college students requires not only sufficient access to clinicians providing effective mental health treatments,” Stein said. “Programs like Active Minds that increase student awareness of mental health problems, decrease stigma and enhance the likelihood of students supporting their peers in receiving needed mental health services are an important part of the solution.” by Bruce Thiel

Disclosures:  Sontag-Padilla reports participating in projects sponsored by the California Mental Health Services Authority, the NYC Center for Economic Opportunity, the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, the U.S. Department of Defense and the Urban Child Institute., and receiving honoraria form the Maternal and Child Health Bureau. Please see the study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.

Photo of Bradley Stein, MD, 2018
Bradley D. Stein

College students who became involved with a peer-run organization focusing on mental health were likely to improve their knowledge of mental health and reduce stigma, according to recently published study results in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

“In this longitudinal study that followed 1,129 college students over the course of a single academic year, we found that increased familiarity with Active Minds a student-led organization aimed at teaching peers about mental health issues and decreasing stigma was associated with increases in students’ perceived knowledge and reduction in stigma surrounding mental health,” Bradley D. Stein, MD, PhD, a senior physician scientist at RAND Corp, told Infectious Diseases in Children. “Moreover, students who actively engaged with Active Minds were more likely to provide emotional support to peers and connect others to professional help.”

Undergraduate students from 12 California campuses (66% women) completed three online surveys during the 2016-2017 academic year. All campuses involved included a chapter of Active Minds, a national nonprofit organization that has more than 400 student-run chapters on college and high school campuses across the United States. The surveys measured familiarity with Active Minds, as well as mental health attitudes, behaviors and perceived mental health knowledge.

Among the students — who had been on campus an average of 1.94 years — 20% were white, 42% were Asian, 27% were Hispanic/Latino and 11% were other races or ethnicities.

The students were classified into groups based on their familiarity and involvement with the Active Minds program.

Most students (63%) were considered low engagement at study baseline and were more likely to be male and Asian and less likely to have had experiences with mental health-related issues.

Students who increased familiarity with Active Minds had increased perceived knowledge of mental illness signs, support and resources, and decreased stigma over time (both P  <  .001). Students who became involved with Active Minds reported increases in perceived knowledge (P  <  .001) and helping behaviors.

The level of baseline engagement with Active Minds affected students’ familiarity and involvement later. Students who began the study with low engagement with the group reported decreased stigma and improved perceived mental health knowledge. Students who had moderate baseline engagement with Active Minds reported that an increase in involvement with the group was associated with providing additional emotional support and connecting other students to services over time. Those students who were in the high engagement group reported no association with increased familiarity or involvement over time.

“Clinicians should know that addressing the mental health needs of college students requires not only sufficient access to clinicians providing effective mental health treatments,” Stein said. “Programs like Active Minds that increase student awareness of mental health problems, decrease stigma and enhance the likelihood of students supporting their peers in receiving needed mental health services are an important part of the solution.” by Bruce Thiel

Disclosures:  Sontag-Padilla reports participating in projects sponsored by the California Mental Health Services Authority, the NYC Center for Economic Opportunity, the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, the U.S. Department of Defense and the Urban Child Institute., and receiving honoraria form the Maternal and Child Health Bureau. Please see the study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.