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College students are increasingly struggling with mental health issues. The statistics are sobering. Students showing significant symptoms of depression increased from 25 to 41 percent between 2016 and 2021. Campuses saw a similar rise in students with significant symptoms of anxiety.
In response, colleges have increased their spending on mental health resources and created strategies to address students’ mental health needs. Often, larger campuses have a crisis team to provide intervention services in mental health emergencies such as attempted suicide.
Yet the number of students in crisis keeps rising and the costs are high. A National Alliance on Mental Illness survey found 64% of U.S. college students dropped out because of mental health issues. Of those, half didn’t access available mental health services.
Implementing universally accessible mental health resources on college campuses has become essential. You want to ensure all students can receive the help they need.
Relying on a health plan isn’t sufficient. Campuses can affect real change in mental health outcomes by taking measures like these:
Often, college campuses will have disparate mental health resources spread across campus. For instance, student athletes, medical school students, and international scholars may have separate mental health programs, funded by different departments.
By pulling these resources together, colleges can create economies of scale and enhanced purchase power to manage costs more effectively.
When you provide coverage for the entire student body, the cost per student decreases. Additionally, universities can develop comprehensive communication campaigns to encourage use of these school-wide resources.
College leaders may mistakenly believe faculty don’t want to be involved in students’ mental health challenges. Research from the Boston University School of Public Health and the Mary Christie Foundation dispels this myth. Findings indicate 73% of faculty members want training on how to help. More than half of faculty — 61% — think student mental health training needs to be mandatory.
Teach staff how to spot symptoms. A matrix with boxes to check, developed by campus mental health advisors, can assist staff in identifying at-risk students.
Additionally, share what steps to take if they suspect a student is struggling with a mental health challenge. Your staff needs to be aware of the full range of campus resources and where to refer students for help. They also need guidance on how to approach students with their concerns.
The goal? You want students in need of mental health support to view faculty members as advocates and allies.
Are seven papers necessary in a particular course? Or could students demonstrate mastery in a different way? Choice can reduce anxiety.
How are you fostering community on campus to ensure students feel connected, not isolated? Having close friendships can protect student mental health, so how can your campus promote relationship-building?
Do students lose scholarships if their grade dip? Financial stress, along with food and housing insecurity, can compound depression and other mental health challenges. Are there creative ways to alleviate financial concerns?
Engage students in identifying stressors and possible solutions. Also, provide education on healthy coping strategies and stress management techniques.
Begin with basic services to meet students’ pressing mental health needs. Technology apps and telehealth make support more affordable and accessible. Work to educate all students about the resources available to them. As time goes on, monitor program utilization and identify resource gaps. As colleges and universities build out mental health resources, some are opting to hire specialized personnel like a Chief Health Officer.
Typically, 25% of students are in student health insurance programs. The other 75% may be on parents’ plans, Medicaid, or other coverage. This means students have differing healthcare resources. The best way to offer equal mental health treatment access is through a separate program apart from the insurance plan. For instance, an institution can provide all students with a mental health telehealth service that’s available 24/7.
Consider covering the costs through tuition insurance. A student who does not know about or have access to mental health resources is more likely to drop out. This leaves the student without a degree and the college without tuition. Take a close look at the costs of recruiting students and then losing them. Funding mental health services can be less expensive than student attrition.
Colleges that invest in student mental health also reap reputational benefits that attract more applicants. Improved mental health often translates to better grades, reducing the risk of dropout.
First, assess your current mental health offerings and communications. What opportunities do you see for combining services and communicating more effectively to students? Conduct your own campus survey to gauge students’ awareness and use of mental health services.
Second, are there ways to fund coverage so all students have access to the same mental health benefits? Consolidating current mental health initiatives and pursuing tech-based options can help drive affordability.
Third, engage your faculty and staff in designing the path forward. Identify outside experts who can develop a system for spotting and helping at-risk students, along with staff training on how to use it. Consider hiring a Chief Health Officer to lead this effort.
Finally, do an annual “check and adjust” to assess students’ utilization of services. What areas need improvement? Is communication adequate? Are faculty and staff sufficiently engaged in student mental health initiatives? Are there gaps where you need additional programming, resources, or expertise? Working with a qualified student health insurance consultant can help you find plans and solutions that meet the needs of your students.
Your institution exists to promote learning. Since strong mental health is foundational for optimal learning, every college and university benefits from investing in student mental health.
Want to learn more?
Connect with the Risk Strategies Education team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the authors
Elizabeth (Liz) Marks works with colleges and universities to develop student health and wellness strategies to boost student success. She helps clients mitigate the risks related to mental health issues, with solutions such as telehealth.
Steve Bryant specializes in insurance and risk management for higher education. His 42 years of experience include 19 years as risk manager at a major university.