Handshake student stories

How students are shaping the future of mental health at work

Real college students share how mental health impacts their career plans

At Handshake’s Access 2022 conference for employers and career services professionals, three students spoke about their journey with mental health. The discussion — which can be viewed in full below — focused on how the mental health impact of the past two years has influenced their approach to the job search, career planning, and their future.

Meet the panelists

Because no two mental health journeys are alike, it was important that “The student perspective: Mental health and the job hunt” panel featured three unique perspectives, with the student panelists’ backgrounds spanning a range of school types and experiences. One is a motivated community college student preparing to transfer to a four-year university in the fall, one an undergraduate rising senior at a large public university, and one a graduate student entering their second year of study. Learn more about them below:

Panelists:

Giana

  • San Francisco State University, 2023
  • Major: Visual Communication Design

Isadora

  • Diablo Valley College, 2024
  • Major: Psychology

Matthew

  • Duke University, The Sanford School of Public Policy, 2023
  • Major: Master of Public Policy, Concentration in Energy & Environment

The pandemic’s impact on student wellness

Back in 2020, 66% of college students reported that prioritizing their mental health was more important since the start of the pandemic. How has it affected you?

“I have always been aware of mental health, since high school, because of lived experiences and experiences with family members,” answered Matthew. “I was part of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) which taught me a lot and how diverse of an issue it is.” He is also certified in mental health first aid and serves as a graduate assistant for Duke’s wellness center focused specifically on mental wellness issues. “This pandemic gave us a lot of time to reflect. We’ve all had more time to sit with ourselves,” added Matthew. “I’m excited to learn and share what I’ve learned.”

Isadora painted a picture of how the pandemic impacted her first years of college. “Right when I started, everything was online; I never got to experience being on campus and meeting people. And there are no in-person classes yet. All we had was a screen,” she described. “The lack of connection and interaction made me feel alone. I fell into a deep depression and was consumed with anxiety. I did join a club, which helped. But not making new friends was very difficult, and not being able to connect with other students and teachers.” 

“The job search process is really stressful, especially as a full-time student,” Giana shared of her own mental health journey. “It’s hard to overcome barriers like years of experience or certain skills. I’m first-gen, so I can’t commit to an unpaid position, since I have a part-time job and also help my parents. I lose out on opportunities, and this can be really discouraging. I feel pressure that my family’s financial status depends on my future career.”

Mental health and the job hunt

What role has prioritizing mental health played in how you approach the job search? Has it changed what you’re looking for from employers in terms of benefits, policies, or the recruitment process?

“I look for employers that include mental health coverage or have other resources available,” Giana shared of her ongoing search for UX and Visual Design work. “I also think it’s important for employers to spot signs of emotional distress.” While the panelists recognize that it’s not a boss’ job to play therapist for their teams, they all agreed that managers should be equipped to recognize indicators around mental health, guide their teams to resources, and properly advocate for their interns and new hires. 

“I’ve learned that putting myself first is courageous, not selfish — it makes me a better student and employee.” — Giana, San Francisco State

Matthew shared that he asks a lot about a company’s culture and how employees feel working at the company during informational interviews, like Handshake’s Virtual Info Chats. One thing he looks out for in a company is a disconnect between what an organization publicly espouses about mental health versus what resources they actually provide and wellness practices they authentically promote for their teams. Much like ‘Greenwashing’ is a common problem among organizations trying to cash in on eco-friendly initiatives without adjusting their own environmental footprint; Matthew cautions against “Mental Health Washing” in a similar vein.

Matthew shared his hope that managers and intern program leaders would create environments where their teams could build genuine relationships, which goes a long way when it comes to mental health. Bring your interns and early career employees together, he encouraged the employers attending the session; they’re typically in an environment where they don’t know anybody, so it’s incredibly reassuring when leadership invests in building a community for their teams. 

Universities can support students’ mental health

What resources could your school provide to you and your peers to help more deeply with the current state of your mental health? 

Career services professionals are there to figure out what’s best for your skills and interests, and can play a significant role in helping student jobseekers discern which opportunities will serve their holistic wellness beyond mere pay, said Matthew. Matthew acknowledged that different higher education institutions will have varying levels of resources available for their students, but one important area of opportunity for any career center is for counselors to guide job-seekers in reading between the lines of an opportunity: beyond the skills needed for the role and the pay rate, what does working there actually look like?

He described a career-planning course available to him at Duke, which included tips for important career skills like writing cover letters and broke the process into digestible pieces. “It can be very overwhelming otherwise,” he shared. 

Isadora, a volunteer with the Crisis Text Line, praised her school’s tool for connecting students with specialized mental health professionals, an app called TimelyCare. “The school covers 10 free sessions,” she explained of the service. “After having sessions with professionals, it made me feel like I am enough and I have a bright future ahead of me.”

With mental health, communication is everything

How can schools and employers show that they value your well-being?

When asked about how higher education institutions can demonstrate their investment in students’ mental wellness, Giana shared a personal story. “A friend of mine was deeply depressed, but her professor interpreted it as laziness,” she explained, describing a situation where a friend’s mental health struggles led to a vicious cycle of poor grades and exacerbated depression. “Communication between educators and students is so important,” she concluded, urging schools to train their faculty to recognize synonyms of mental health struggles among their students. She added that employers looking to hire her peers should demonstrate the same investment, training managers in the appropriate response to mental health crises. 

Isadora agreed, encouraging employers to continually reiterate to their teams that mental health is important to them. Another key element to preserving new hires’ mental health? Being kind when correcting mistakes! The attitude when helping interns and new hires learn the ropes is key, explained Isadora: “It’s important to build trust first.”

On top of Giana and Isadora’s recommendations, Matthew concluded that employers should continually remind employees and interns throughout their experience what resources are available to them — don’t just share during orientation then go silent. 

With hundreds of employers and career services professionals in attendance, the panelists’ perspectives are sure to influence hiring practices in the recruiting seasons to come.

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