The Intersection

Supporting Mental Health within Institutions of Higher Education

June 17, 2021

The Challenge

Institutions of higher education (IHEs) have undergone unprecedented changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. More than a year after the United States’ initial lockdowns, many institutions are grappling with how to best support students in their learning environment, whether remote, hybrid, or in-person. One key area of support for students at IHEs is mental health, as students reportedly struggle from isolation and loneliness as a result of the consequences of the pandemic.

Student mental health is a growing issue amongst college campuses. A study by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that presidents and student affairs leaders listed student mental health as their number one concern as rising prevalence of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other concerns grow in student populations. The national Healthy Minds Study (HSM) shows that nearly seven million college students meet criteria for a clinically significant mental health problem.

Studies by Boston University of nearly 33,000 students in higher education across the country reveal that the prevalence of depression and anxiety amongst young people continues to increase, exacerbated by the stress factors brought forth by the pandemic. The study further reveals that 83 percent of students believe their academic performance has been hindered by declining mental health, while signs of depression and loneliness reach at an all-time high.

Since last March when the COVID-19 lockdowns took place, college-aged students commonly report feeling unmotivated, anxious, stressed, and isolated. Many of the stressors are linked to distance learning and social isolation, underscoring the impact of relationships on students’ mental health. One study at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill finds that first-year college students are reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety significantly more often than before the pandemic. Moderate to severe anxiety in first-year college students at UNC Chapel Hill increased 40 percent within the first four months of the pandemic. Further, Black college students were hardest hit by anxiety and depression, whose incidence of depression grew by 89 percent.

Students’ mental health is important and should be addressed by IHEs. Poor mental health brings various consequences, as it can hinder a student’s academic success and lead to high dropout rates among struggling students. The Healthy Minds Study finds that students struggling with mental health are twice as likely to leave an institution without graduating, and the results hold even after controlling for students’ prior academic records. Students suffering from symptoms of mental health disorders are at risk of a lower GPA, discontinuous enrollment, and possibly dropping out. Therefore, IHEs should aim to provide all students with access to mental health services that will in turn benefit the student population. Moreover, IHEs should invest in the long-term provision of these services, understanding that student mental health is an issue leaders must continue to address post-pandemic.

Policy Recommendations  

Campuses can be instrumental in the prevention and early treatment of mental health disorders. The ability of colleges and universities to intervene is important for a student’s health as well as the social, educational, and economic well-being of students, communities, and our broader society. An institution’s focus on student mental health benefits both its academic mission and its economic well-being. Resources directed at student mental health can improve students’ well-being and benefit colleges, universities, and society by enhancing student learning.

Prioritize Mental Health | The mental health crisis brought on by the pandemic has changed the way students evaluate colleges and universities, specifically when it comes to providing mental health support for students. A recent survey of prospective students found that 50 percent have changed their views on the importance of mental health support for students, and 60 percent of prospective students said that mental health services are a very important factor when selecting where they will go to school. Districts and education stakeholders should work closely within IHEs to prioritize mental health initiatives ranging for all students.

Partner with other IHEs, public, and/or private entities to combine resources for supporting student mental health | Partnerships have been critical for IHEs in the delivery of mental health services during the pandemic and will be important in the future. In October, the State University of New York (SUNY) expanded its partnership with Thriving Campus to eliminate some barriers students face when seeking help beyond their college counseling center. The platform developed by Thriving Campus was developed to streamline the referral process for students in need of “specialized, long-term care.”

Leverage technology to support students in various learning environments | Institutions can still support students through telehealth services by establishing online or in-person counseling resources, and fostering relationships by providing spaces for students to interact with peers and professors. Appalachian State University has implemented “Let’s Talk,” a virtual counseling program for students to have a one-on-one with counselors. Appalachian State University also offers group teletherapy where students are offered various workshops to talk about mental health topics. Additionally, increased investment in counselors and in-person counseling services will be critical. With students returning to IHEs in the fall, developing robust in-person and virtual counseling services will be necessary.

Develop a clear, comprehensive communication plan that addresses student mental health concerns | As mental health resource availability becomes a chief concern amongst students pursuing higher education due to the effects of the pandemic, academic accommodations and mental health support should be not only readily available throughout IHEs, but should also be communicated clearly, often, and through multiple channels. Using low-cost measures, such as including information on mental health services on syllabi and bulletins, allow for a quick and effective dissemination of information on these services across campuses.

Assess the needs of diverse students to tailor mental health services and programs | To provide students with adequate support, education stakeholders must first understand the needs of their student population. Collecting data through student surveys and discussions can highlight the unique needs of various student groups such as students of color, first-generation students, LGTBQ students, international students, and low-income students. Diverse student perspectives are essential to inform mental health policies within institutions and identify gaps in existing mental health services. Therefore, IHEs should consider providing students with the opportunities to present their needs through surveys, focus groups, forums, and open discussions. Furthermore, policymakers and IHE leaders should consider investing in the hiring of counselors that can identify with students from underrepresented and/or marginalized populations, giving students from all populations the space and the resources to feel comfortable with discussing mental health.


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