Mindpath College Health’s Brett Donnelly, M.D. VP of Growth, College Health, discusses what colleges can do to alleviate the mental health crisis on campus.
Young Americans are facing a mental health crisis—and many aren’t getting the support they need.
About three-quarters of college students rated their mental health as “well” prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020, but 48% say their overall mental health worsened since the pandemic, according to survey of 1,000 college students conducted by The Harris Poll in June.
In these challenging times, many of the nation’s 16 million college students are turning to their campus counseling services for help—only to encounter limited staff, red tape, restrictions on the length of services, and long wait times. While more than half of college students report they’ve been in therapy at some point, less than a third report utilizing any mental health resources on campus, according to the survey.
But despite the obstacles colleges and universities face in providing comprehensive mental health resources, there are actions schools can take now to offer more immediate relief and help mitigate the ongoing crisis on campuses nationwide.
Why is there a lack of quality services?
Most colleges and universities have little incentive on the surface to provide robust mental health resources. Colleges are fundamentally businesses with many competing priorities. Ostensibly, schools need only provide an education in exchange for the high tuition.
It’s arguably in the college and university’s best interest to support its student body. Students are more likely to drop out and transfer schools when they experience mental health struggles. Data found that 14% of students say mental health was the primary reason they didn’t graduate. Other studies put that figure at closer to a quarter of students.
In many cases, it’s a matter of resources. There simply aren’t enough. About 35% of colleges report putting limits on individual counseling sessions. And nearly half of college counseling centers use a version of the “stepped care” model, which initially provides students with the least resource-intensive treatment and only boosts the level of care if required. That means many times, students need to try out self-guided solutions, workshops, and peer support groups before they’re given the opportunity to receive individual therapy sessions.
Campus counseling centers are grappling with the nationwide talent shortage of clinicians. “We need more clinicians than we ever needed before. And we need to start getting people excited about entering a career in mental health when they’re young,” says Brett Donnelly, vice president of college health business development at Mindpath Health, which provides in-person and virtual therapy and psychiatry for college students.
What can colleges do right now to alleviate the crisis?
Building that talent pipeline is going to take time. Instead, many experts see peer-to-peer mental health resources and even telehealth as more immediate solutions to help ease the crisis on campus.
Auburn, a winner of the 2022 Healthy Campus Award, has embraced a multidisciplinary approach to mental well-being that goes beyond just the clinical services offered. At Auburn, that includes student mental health clubs and peer-to-peer support, a “Zen Den” offering a variety of stress management resources for students like a nap room and light therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder, as well as a therapy dog program. Students are also eligible for up to 10 free individual therapy sessions per academic year.
Mental health intervention and prevention may need to come earlier as well—perhaps even in the classroom. Some high schools and colleges require students to take a health class, but rarely is mental health a focus. But if young adults are given tools to help them overcome adversity and manage their stress earlier, it could help alleviate the pressure on college resources. Even in college, it could be a preventative step.
Beyond the direct support from colleges, Dr. Doug Hankes, licensed psychologist and executive director of student counseling and psychological services at Auburn University says parents and students should come to campus with realistic expectations. Families often expect there will be the same level of resources they received through private care. That’s not always the case—and families may need to make alternative arrangements in advance.
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