Why college counseling centers are an ideal venue for acceptance-based interventions

Over the past several weeks we’ve reviewed both the alarming rates of mental health issues among college students and presented some of the ways researchers are currently testing to apply mindfulness and acceptance-based interventions in college counseling centers. In their chapter of Mindfulness and Acceptance for Counseling College Students: Theory and Practical Applications for Intervention, Prevention, and Outreach, Drs. Philomena Renner and Elizabeth Foley compare two specific modalities, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) within the college counseling center environment.

  • American data from the 2010 Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) Freshman survey indicated that first-year college students’ self-ratings of their emotional health had dropped to a record low level (Pryor, Hurtado, DeAngelo, Blake, & Tran, 2010).
  • Only 51.9% of students reported that their emotional health was in the above average range; a 3.4% drop from 2009, and a significant decline from 63.6% in 1985.

Academic learning can frequently be pressured, with little available time to experience engagement or opportunity to interact with peers or instructors. This is exacerbated by the need for many students to work part-time on top of their academic responsibilities. As a result, the experience of learning can be one of isolation and the struggle to master content rather than the more ideal cultivation of intellectual curiosity, independence, and critical thinking.

In this environment, unwanted feelings are likely to be seen as obstacles to academic success, and may be subject to attempts by students to manipulate such undesirable experiences by using avoidance strategies like rumination, perfectionism, procrastination, eating dysregulation, drug and alcohol misuse, and self-harm. But of course, attempts to inhibit or avoid unpleasant experiences both increase the frequency and distress of these experiences and the sense of being disconnected from oneself (John & Gross, 2004).

The potential of acceptance-based therapies on campus

Acceptance-based interventions like Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT; Segal et al., 2002) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT; Hayes et al., 2011) suggest that functioning can be improved by changing the way people perceive and interact with their internal experiences rather than changing the experiences themselves. Such interventions work to develop this perspective by providing situations where students engage with experiential exercises and have the opportunity to define what is meaningful for them. The values dimension is an explicit part of acceptance-based interventions; awareness of personal values coupled with engagement in balanced activities in associated areas. For the college student, a flexible and focused sense of awareness around personal meaning can significantly improve their ability to manage the vicissitudes of academic stress and unpleasant experiences.


Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., Wilson, K. G. (2011). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The process and practice of mindful change. New York: Guilford Press.

John, O. P., & Gross, J. J. (2004). Healthy and unhealthy emotion regulation: Personality processes, individual differences, and life span development. Journal of Personality, 72, 1301–1333.

Pryor, J., Hurtado, S., DeAngelo, L., Palucki, Blake, L., & Tran, S. (2010). The American freshman: National norms fall 2010. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.

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