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Bentley Magazine

are the kids all right?

For Ellie MacMillan ’24, the issue of mental health is extremely personal. At age 14, she lost her older brother to suicide. In the wake of her brother’s death, several doctors told MacMillan that she was dealing with grief — a natural reaction that she would overcome in time. A more complete accounting of her mental health problems wouldn’t emerge for a few years.

“I eventually learned I had depression and anxiety mixed in with post-traumatic stress disorder and mood disorder,” she says. “It really affected me back then. Even now, seven or eight years later, depression and anxiety still affect me. Suicidal thoughts as well.”

MacMillan’s mental health struggles are all too common among today’s undergraduate and graduate students as well as recent entrants into the workforce. It’s no surprise that finding solutions to enhance the health and well-being of young people has become a priority for universities and employers alike.

Roots of the Issue

Each year, the Healthy Minds Network conducts a survey to assess the mental health of college and graduate students. Its most recent study, published in March 2023, surveyed 96,000 students across 133 campuses in the 2021-2022 academic year.

The results were jarring. “It found that 44% of students reported symptoms of depression, 37% reported anxiety disorders and 15% reported having seriously considered suicide in the past year — the highest recorded rates in the history of the 15-year-old survey,” according to the University of Michigan, a member of the Healthy Minds Network.

The roots of today’s mental health crisis may well date back to 2007. That was the year Apple released the first iPhone, ushering in the smartphone era. Silke Plesch, a senior lecturer in Natural and Applied Sciences at Bentley who teaches cyber psychology courses and works as a mental health counselor, notes that this generation of college students has grown up relying on smartphones to stay connected with others.

“They actually prefer online communication over offline communication because it’s more convenient, it’s faster and they don’t have to feel other people’s feelings as much,” Plesch says. “But in the long term, this damages a person’s sense of self and ability to read social cues. There’s very clear data showing this reduction in in-person communication has led to a rise in mental health issues, particularly anxiety issues and depressive symptoms.”

Joe Maselli ’23, MSF ’24
We’re giving people a different way to talk about mental health and reframing the conversation so that we can attack these issues through a different lens.
Joe Maselli ’23, MSF ’24

Starting in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic spurred young people to spend even more time on their phones to combat feelings of isolation. Peter Forkner, director of the Bentley University Counseling Center, says the increased screen time — especially consuming social media — exacerbated mental health problems.

“Many students are already insecure about how they fit in with their peers,” he says. “Now you have a massive platform for judgment where you can post a picture of yourself and literally measure on a day-to-day basis how much approval you’re getting.”

Forkner adds that broader concerns ranging from wars in the Middle East and Ukraine to the existential threat of climate change are also weighing on young people’s minds. “But that’s no different than previous generations, which had their shares of troubles and hardships as well,” he says. “The difference is that with smartphones, we’re engaging with those horrible things on a constant basis. That’s creating huge challenges for college students, high school students and even grade school students.”

Students Take Action

Joe Maselli ’23, MSF ’24 says he first started struggling with his mental health in middle school, when food allergies began triggering anxious thoughts and reactions. Over time, concerns about his future and what others thought of him compounded his struggles. Fortunately, Maselli began working with a therapist, and together they found effective ways for him to manage his anxiety.

Then during his first year at Bentley, Maselli began experiencing symptoms of depression. “I had a lot of rough days where I didn’t want to get out of bed or hang out with friends,” he says. “At that point, I got a therapist to explore that side of me. He helped me reignite my purpose, do well in class and become engaged on campus.”

That resilience eventually had a campus-wide impact. Two years later while running for Student Government Association president and vice president, respectively, Maselli and MacMillan decided to make student mental health the focus of their campaign. They won the election and went on to found Bentley Active Minds in December 2022. The university’s chapter of the national nonprofit organization, Bentley Active Minds is Bentley’s first student-led organization dedicated to mental health awareness and education.

In addition to advocating for more mental health resources, destigmatizing mental illness is central to Bentley Active Minds’ mission.

“There’s still a stigma surrounding mental health and the ability to get help for yourself,” MacMillan says. “It’s interesting because everyone says they wouldn’t judge someone else for seeing a therapist. But if you ask whether others would judge you for seeing a therapist, most people say ‘yes.’ Where’s the disconnect?”

Since its launch, Bentley Active Minds has attracted around 50 members and hosted a number of events, such as a conversation that MacMillan led about using proper language when discussing suicide. “We’re giving people a different way to talk about mental health and reframing the conversation so that we can attack these issues through a different lens,” says Maselli, who now serves as a senior adviser to the organization.

Colleges Respond

In the United States, the size of the pediatric mental health workforce has proven inadequate to serve the increasing number of youth with mental health problems. According to Massachusetts General Hospital, only about 9,000 practicing clinicians in the U.S. are qualified to care for the roughly 15 million children and adolescents nationwide that are in need of mental health support.

Many colleges and universities are dedicating staff and other resources to meet the heightened demand. At Bentley, improving students’ mental health is part of a larger emphasis on student well-being. Students are encouraged to be active participants in their own care because well-being is such an essential part of their academic and future career success.

Bentley’s Counseling Center has a flexible, short-term model of services that offers students counseling sessions based upon their need. But the center may not be appropriate for a student whose problem isn’t very severe and is seeking long-term weekly care — or for a student with a severe mental health disorder. In either case, the Counseling Center will connect the student with the appropriate resources in the community using their insurance, whether a private practitioner or a higher level of care.

Since the onset of COVID-19, many schools have turned to telehealth to supplement their in-house counseling services. For instance, Bentley contracts with teletherapy vendor BetterMynd to provide students with remote therapy sessions with licensed counselors. Students can use BetterMynd to see a counselor of their choosing each week during the school year at no cost.

Besides improving access to mental health services, BetterMynd has a roster of counselors who are diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, gender identity and more. That’s a key benefit, notes Oyenike Balogun-Mwangi, a licensed psychologist and assistant professor in Natural and Applied Sciences at Bentley.

“Research shows that people want to be in spaces with someone who matches their lived experience or at least can appreciate their lived experience,” Balogun-Mwangi says. “It’s important to have a diverse range of therapists providing mental health care so that people can be in spaces with someone with whom they connect. Therapeutic match matters more than technique and is what drives adherence to treatment.”

Why Companies Care About Mental Health

But what about the mental health of recent college graduates who are early in their careers? To find out, several organizations collaborated on a survey of 1,005 workers between the ages of 22 and 28. The study, published in January 2023, reported that 51% of respondents noted emotional or mental health problems in the previous year, while 38% said their workplace had a negative impact on their mental health and well-being.

Companies have plenty of motivation to focus on improving their employees’ mental health. BalogunMwangi cites research showing record-high rates in leaves of absence among Gen Z workers. “Corporations measure their output in terms of productivity,” she says. “If there is a mental health crisis and they’re not addressing it or providing adequate support, they’re going to lose money.”

Companies that offer high-quality mental health and other benefits stand to gain in recruiting and retaining talented young employees. According to the Bentley-Gallup 2023 Business in Society Report, which surveyed 5,458 U.S. adults, 66% of Americans aged 18 to 29 say that whether a company offers free mental health services would be somewhat or extremely important in their decision to apply for a job there.

Without question, employee mental health has gotten the attention of U.S. businesses. Companies are responding in a variety of ways, from taking steps to enhance their culture and reduce burnout to expanding mental health benefits. One approach that may be gaining momentum: offering a four-day, 40-hour work week for employees who typically work a five-day week. The Bentley-Gallup survey found that 82% of Americans aged 18 to 29 say that option would have a somewhat or extremely positive impact on their well-being.

Eventually, today’s young professionals will need to take the lead in creating workplaces that pay attention to and nurture their mental health. Maselli, who will start a job in corporate finance in June, believes he will be up to the task.

“I think I have the tools and confidence to bring the mental health conversation into the workplace,” he says. “In the finance world, there are high pressures, high expectations and a lot of deadlines. I love all that. But it is possible to keep that high work ethic and still find time to care for ourselves and check in on each other. We can find a balance between all those things.”

Traditionally, universities cared for their students’ well-being by focusing on two areas: psychological support and physical activity. Bentley has a broader understanding in which mental health is one of many parts of a student’s well-being. Learn more about our approach, known as BentleyPlus.

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