Student Housing Owners, Operators Come Together to Support Resident Mental Health

by Katie Sloan

In 2021, a number of off-campus housing providers came together to form the College Student Mental Wellness Advocacy Coalition (CSMWAC). The effort was started to support the mental well-being of off-campus housing residents, in hopes of providing them resources and programs. More than 26 off-campus student housing companies have since joined the effort. Student Housing Business recently interviewed several members of the CSMWAC’s board to find out more about the coalition and its initiatives. SHB spoke with Jonathan Bove, executive vice president, Landmark Properties; Richie Lasek, director of innovation and engagement, Core Spaces; Theresa Sopata, vice president, client services, RPM Living; Dan Oltersdorf, chief people officer, Campus Advantage; and Barrett Lowell, managing director, head of education and multifamily, Harrison Street.

SHB: How did the College Housing Mental Wellness Advocacy Coalition come about?

Lasek: During COVID, industry leaders came together to figure out how to support each other through weekly conference calls. Those calls centered around sharing best practices for operating student housing communities amidst the challenges the pandemic brought our communities. In the wake of COVID in December 2021, Jenn Cassidy [senior vice president, student housing operations, Cardinal Group Management] reached out to a few of us and raised the idea of joining forces as an industry to support our residents’ well-being. We had all seen an uptick in mental health-related incidents at our communities. With our resident demographic being predominantly 18 to 22 years old, and our communities often being their first home away from home, we knew there was more we could do together as an industry. We are committed to helping. 

SHB: How did the coalition take shape?

Lasek: Once a few of the larger companies were on board, we started talking about how we could make an impact together. We created a leadership committee of eight people from different companies with unique perspectives and relationships within the industry. Strategically, we first looked for new membership from the student housing operators with the largest portfolios to ensure we would have the most reach in our inaugural year. Next, we had our first in-person appearance as a coaltion at InterFace Student Housing in 2022 to recruit additional members. That event allowed us to get in contact with a number of smaller, regional operators that wanted to join. By the end of 2022, we had so much interest that we member companies collectively totaled 800,000 residents across 216 university markets in our combined portfolios. Simultaneously, we were establishing our network within the mental health space and thinking about where to start helping. We realized that the starting point was with our community team members first. 

SHB: Is the situation with mental health more acute now than five, 10 or 15 years ago?

Bove: It could be generational, but today we live in an environment where people are more comfortable talking about their mental health; their mental well-being . That is one thing that the pandemic catalyzed in a way that we wouldn’t have expected. It seems like our current generation of residents, and the rising generation, is more open to having these conversations. 

Oltersdorf: Our initial study found that what helps college students the most is community. They need to create environments that are healthy. That is so much of what we do. We saw an absence of that during COVID, when people had to be separated. Now that people are able to be more social, it is important to foster new communities and connections.

SHB: How is the partnership organized?

Sopata: We have a partnership with the ‘Hi, How Are You (HHAY) Project.’ We are building on the relationship between HHAY and what they have been able to accomplish with American Campus Communities over the past few years. The ‘Hi, How Are You Project’ is an Austin, Texas-based 501(c) non-profit organization that is focused on removing the stigma for mental health. It aids in starting conversation, and creating communication and connection with students. We are working with them side-by-side to expand the connection to students and have more communication around mental health. We have also been working with the JED Foundation, another national non-profit whose mission is to protect emotional health and works on suicide prevention for teens and adults. The JED Foundation partners with over 144 universities in the U.S. on mental health initiatives. They are collaborating with us on an index survey and a report, which is really exciting for us. 

SHB: Why are college students at risk for mental health issues?

Bove: Our team members see it every day: even though we are not trained counselors, we recognize behaviors that are out of the ordinary. Our students are in a time when they are going through an amazing amount of change in their lives. A lot of identity development happens during the period when they are in college. That can result in a lot of feelings of both connection and disconnection. The pandemic exacerbated that. All of us who have worked on-campus know — and have read the research — that the more connected a student is to their university and classmates, the more likely they are to be successful. Whether it is the pandemic, technology, social media or relationships, there are a lot of contributing factors challenging a college student’s mental health. A large number of contributing factors add up to a feeling of disconnection amongst our students. 

Sopata: Everyone comes to the table with their own story. Students’ struggles come from different places. For some, it could be the pressures of social media and being constantly connected. For others, it could be pressures resulting from having to go live with their parents during the pandemic — a lot of students’ worlds were turned upside-down during the past few years. For some, it was the political environment and social injustices. At the same time, they are trying to juggle all the pressures of being a college student. Our brains are only designed to accommodate so much trauma, stress and fear. 

Lowell: While it may appear on social media that a college student is fitting in and happy from a virtual standpoint, the reality is that person might be suffering from a sense of loneliness and isolation.

Oltersdorf: We are looking at the difference between students who are struggling, and those who are thriving. We want to see what they have in common and then translate that to a residential environment. While we have so far addressed what is the problem and why is there a problem, the relevant question is how can we identify what works and build on that?

Bove: One of the initiatives in that direction was last year, on October 10 — World Mental Health Day — we launched our inaugural ‘Thriving College Student Index’ report. It is a survey that we distributed to our nearly 800,000 students across all 24 participating organizations. We partnered with Ipsos, a large international research organization, and the ‘Hi, How Are You Project’. We released the results in January 2023. It identifies where students are across the mental health spectrum. It also identifies those commonalities that we were after. There is plenty of research about the on-campus community, but this was really the first such survey of the off-campus community. We could see by the results what an important role our communities have in supporting the well-being of our residents. Most of us know that anecdotally, but now we have quantitative data that backs up why we should be supporting our students. Thriving students who feel connected to their communities are more likely to say they are laughing and smiling a lot; they are more likely to feel comfortable talking about their mental health compared to students who are not feeling a connection with their community. 

SHB: How are you taking this data and pushing the message to the properties, and training staff properly to ask the right questions?

Bove: We are in the early stages. The second annual index will launch this year on October 10. That will give us two data points. We hope to grow our responses from the 18,000 that we received in 2022 to over 25,000 in 2023. When we do that, our next step is to begin to create materials and training modules that we can distribute to our communities and our residents. Our goal is to reach 1 million students by the end of the year. We are working with ‘Hi, How Are You’ and The JED Foundation to make sure that the materials we are distributing are of high quality. This will include peer-to-peer training and train-the-trainer type trainings, as well as resident educational materials, resident programming, and opportunities for connections to on-campus resources. We recently connected with the organization that connects all the on-campus counseling centers. This is very much a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ type of organization. We are going to provide resources that a small management company can use just as effectively as the larger companies in our space. 

SHB: Long-term, will there be an organized framework so that properties can have something to implement?

Oltersdorf: The outcomes have been identified in broad categories as of now since we are so new. Among those are programming and training. All the coalition members will be getting a resource toolkit. Exactly what will be in that, and what approach that training will be a continually evolving process. We have been focused also on making this a sustainable effort. We are excited that this project truly has massive potential and implications as we come together to raise the bar when it comes to intentionally helping students to truly thrive.

SHB: How has interest been for the coalition?

Bove: We have seen nearly universal interest from off-campus housing firms. The vast majority of operators in SHB’s Top 25 Managers — and beyond — have reached out to participate in some form or another. That very clearly demonstrates that our industry is unified in wanting to address this issue head-on. 

Lasek: Other than operators, we have seen a lot of interest from vendors, investors and other non-operators active in the industry wanting to help. It is great to see companies like general contractors, architects and developers take interest in getting involved. 

SHB: Could this initiative lead to a broader change in student housing, in terms of how you design for wellness?

Bove: I’ve definitely seen some of our residents take out some of their stress at our golf simulators. 

Lowell: While golf simulators may not be as in demand for developers as they were years ago, other types of amenities contribute to the mental wellness of our residents. Physical exercise is part of that.

SHB: From an ESG perspective, what is the investor interest in having a focus on mental health at the property level?

Lowell: It strikes a chord, because student connectivity at the property level benefits everyone; and if done via successful onsite programming, mental health and a true sense of belonging is better fostered for our residents onsite vs. online. You have to create a social fabric where one’s self-worth is not tied to their latest Snapchat status. Such a focus hits the sustainability piece of ESG all day, and it’s all about creating a better living situation for our residents.

Interview by Randall Shearin and Richard Kelley

This article was originally published in the July/August issue of Student Housing Business magazine.

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