Without a clear definition of campus-specific problems, colleges run the risk of implementing interventions prematurely and could fail to achieve desired changes (e.g., fewer depressed and anxious students, less suicidal behavior). A careful and thorough problem assessment provides campus leaders with objective data about the problems students experience, the risk and protective factors linked to these problems, and estimates of how common or prevalent these issues are. A problem assessment can also help campuses identify the programs that are currently in place and assess their impact.
Collect and examine sources of data. An examination of existing data, such as campus-specific National College Heath Assessment (NCHA) data, is a good starting point to quantify the health of the student body. Counseling centers often collect client data, primarily focused on satisfaction with services, and some are collecting data to link receipt of services to academic success.
If campus-specific data are not available, data from the most recent national NCHA administration and the National Research Consortium of Counseling Centers in Higher Education’s 70-campus study on The Nature of Suicidal Crises in College Students are informative. Single-campus studies like the University of Michigan’s Healthy Minds Study and the University of California – Berkeley’s Graduate Student Mental Health Survey can also be useful sources of data.
Collecting new data, such as online or written surveys, focus groups, and one-to-one interviews (with faculty, staff, and students), can be used to supplement existing data and yield a deeper understanding of student mental health needs on campus.
Assess existing resources. It is important to begin with a good sense of which programs are already in place, how effective they are, and any gaps that might exist. Campuses that are very decentralized in decision-making may find that many offices and departments are implementing program elements related to mental health promotion, so planners should be sure to investigate beyond counseling, health services, and health promotion.
Assess the climate for campus-wide change. Campus planners might want to conduct an honest assessment of the people, politics, and forces that are likely to facilitate or resist change. A “readiness” assessment does not need to take a great deal of time, but it can help to identify resources and obstacles and provide an assessment of how ready the community is to accept mental health promotion and suicide prevention as an issue that needs attention.