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A Holistic Approach to Student Health: The Connection Between Mental Health & Basic Needs Insecurity

The student mental health crisis is reaching an all time high. In the last eight years, college students have reported an increase in depression by 135% and an increase in anxiety by 110%. College students are seeking help more now than ever. 

As the leading organization committed to ending college student hunger, Swipe Out Hunger is advocating for a more holistic approach to student mental health. We know that mental health is nuanced, and we encourage campuses to also be mindful of the social and economic factors in students’ lives. Research has shown that basic needs insecurity can affect a students’ mental illness risk.

While addressing this mental health crisis is a priority for many in higher education, resources, time, and capacity are not always on their side. Additionally, current resources and services do not always reflect the diverse lived experiences on college campuses, including those who are parenting students and former foster youth. Through a committed effort from staff, administration, and students across higher education, we can work together to increase awareness and reduce barriers to care. 

Join us in redefining what mental health solutions look like on campuses across the U.S.! To learn more about the relationship between basic needs and mental health, check out our mental health series on social media. By evaluating new opportunities in basic needs work, we can better support students’ wellbeing. Here are three ways we can equitably incorporate mental health into basic needs and anti-hunger work and improve student outcomes:

Raise Awareness

Stigma and misconceptions surrounding basic needs insecurity and mental health often prevent students from identifying these issues and seeking help. Ensuring information is readily available, accurate, and thoughtfully presented encourages students to access their campus resources. Consider being more intentional about mental health awareness through:

  • Training Staff and Volunteers. Consult with a mental health professional or your counseling center to educate staff on the nuances of student mental health. You can also work together to train your team to identify risk factors in students, with the ultimate goal of referring them to mental health professionals.
  • Conducting Intake Surveys. Some campus pantries, like the Pop-Up Pantry at University of Illinois Chicago, are hosted under their respective wellness centers. When students complete the intake survey to access the Pop-Up Pantry at UIC they are also added to the Wellness Center’s listserv: this facilitates a connection between students and mental health services, reducing barriers to healthcare access.

Build a Welcoming Community

Sharing a meal is a popular way for students to socialize on campus; however, food insecurity can exclude students from these moments of connection or even from communal spaces like the dining hall. Social isolation, choice restrictions, and negative stigmas can greatly impact a student’s mental health. Pantries and other basic needs services have the opportunity to create a welcoming and supportive environment through their physical spaces and network of people. Promote a sense of community by:

  • Hosting Social Events. Consider hosting social events for students, such as sharing a thanksgiving dinner or celebrating student birthdays. These moments provide opportunities for students and staff to connect and grow in community.
  • Cultivating A Welcoming Environment. Create a welcoming environment through interpersonal interactions and physical space. Students feel included and appreciated when staff make the effort to know them beyond the context of their need. Additionally, integrating an approachable space for socialization, like chairs or tables to study, reframes the space as inviting and open to the community.

Offer Opportunities for Skill Building

For many students, college can quickly become overwhelming, as students are learning to manage their time, finances, and new responsibilities all at once. Basic needs work provides a unique opportunity for students to not only meet their needs but develop skills like cooking, budgeting, and time management which can empower and motivate them to continue their education. Some skill building opportunities to offer within your program include:

  • Cooking Classes. Cooking classes are a great way to help students develop essential life skills while also strengthening ownership over their relationship with food. The Rat-Snack program at Warren Wilson College has found a fruitful way to incorporate cooking classes into their food recovery activities. Sam Colston, who leads the program, shared that students grow in confidence through the classes: “While instruction was loose, most volunteers voiced their inexperience when handed tasks they didn’t know how to do. It also brought a sense of joy when they were taught how to do the task in a more efficient or satisfying way.” Learn more about this innovative program from our April Swipe Session.
  • Hire Student Staff. If you’re considering hiring new staff for your program, we encourage you to include students in this process. Who better than students to help shape the direction of your program? Their perspective offers an authentic understanding of how to meet student needs. On an individual level, including students as staff offers them not only a financial benefit but also strengthens their management, organization, and interpersonal skills.


For more inspiration and resources to help improve your pantry and programs, join The Feed – our online community and resource hub – and subscribe to our campus newsletter.

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