How colleges are improving mental health on campus

Before COVID-19 was released, college and university students across the country reported an increase in depression, anxiety and other mental health problems.

Many schools have responded by increasing staffing, expanding community partnerships, creating on-demand programs, and other measures to meet the growing demand for services.

During a recent webinar hosted Newsexposer & World Report, John MacPhee, CEO, of the Jed Foundation, a non-profit organization that works with colleges and high schools to support student mental well-being, stated that colleges are a good example of “what really great community-based mental healthcare care can look like”.

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Many colleges, like many others, adopted stronger virtual and hybrid services in order to reach students during the pandemic. MacPhee stated that many students found the tele-mental and digital platforms more convenient and more culturally appropriate in many cases. “They also created more connections to care than existed before the pandemic.”

Dr. Wendy Shanahan Richards, chief medical officer at Aetna student health, said that even two, three years prior to the pandemic, there had been an increase in the use of behavioral health services. She explained that her organization has been increasing school partnerships to “ensure that the programs and offerings we offer are aligned with their student population”.

The pandemic helped institutions to focus and reevaluate what they were doing, according to Dr. David Walden. He is also the director of the Counseling Center at Hamilton College in Clinton. Any crisis gives you the chance to ask yourself, “What am I really looking for?” He said, “Who am I really?”

This includes looking at new approaches to overall health, according to Dr. ShawnteElbert, associate vice-president of health and well being at Ohio State University. These efforts can be “actually sitting down and talking with students and bringing people to the table which is a population- and public health approach” when done properly, she explained. This means that we must approach our work with a health equity-focused perspective.

Staffing problems are top of mind. Walden stated that in addition to worrying data on higher education retention and turnover, there is data showing that some 90 percent of college counselors are burnt out.

This has led to some innovative solutions. Walden explained that Hamilton had a “quarantine pantry” to allow students to use farm-fresh ingredients in their home to make meals together. He said, “We created a songwriting outlet and a variety of other virtual offerings that met our needs.”

Shanahan-Richards stated that although telehealth has been less popular in the recent pandemic, it is still a very important service. Aetna created a Well-being Web Portal to meet the needs of students. It includes resources and self-screening tools. She said, “We listen to schools and students.” “We want to ensure that we do the best we can.”

MacPhee suggested that colleges create an inter-disciplinary leadership team to oversee mental health planning. He also recommended that faculty engage in the process.

Walden stated that Hamilton has support specialists who “work through different offices on campus that are focused specifically on certain populations.” “This person can answer very specific queries about that life journey. This partnership allows us to offer good treatment and good therapy.”

Elbert stated that Ohio State partners with community members to provide daylong professional and educational development training. This can sometimes be used to help the university hire new professionals.

It is also important to care for employees. Walden stated that burnout has never been more prominent and that institutions are losing out to other options for mental health providers. He said that staff and providers want more flexibility and connection.

Panelists unanimously agreed that digital and tele-mental healthcare have great promise to alleviate some of the problems they discussed. These platforms can give universities a competitive advantage, MacPhee stated, and they can help with student retention, graduation rates, which in turn can increase the bottom line. From an investment perspective, that argument needs to be made or part of the story about these investments. They do really pay dividends and they do support student success,” he stated. “In addition to the extremely important primary benefit of supporting mental health of students, faculty, and staff.”

Elbert stated that public health is a team sport and that colleges should embrace a collaborative approach to mental health. She stated that “we can’t do the work in silos.” “We cannot do this work using one particular lens or expertise. This must be looked at from a multidisciplinary perspective.

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