Mental Health and Universities — More Needs to Be Done, Now.

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Mental health services for students on campuses have always been underfunded. As a former board member of the Virginia Board of Counseling  and a therapist in private practice in McLean, Virginia, this has been very apparent to me. Federal law requires universities to be more responsive and proactive. This problem has only skyrocketed during the pandemic. If universities claim to be responsible institutions they have the legal and moral responsibility to do better. Here a a few comments from a recent piece in the Washington Post:

  • College students nationwide are more stressed — with the  pandemic adding loneliness, worry about illness, economic distress, relentless uncertainty and churn to a time of life that is already challenging for many. Demand for mental health services had already been high, but a recent study of college students found increased levels of anxiety and isolation during the pandemic.
  • Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that more than 10 percent of adults surveyed in June 2020 had seriously considered suicide within the past month. Two years earlier, the share stood at about 4 percent. The issue is particularly acute for young adults. Among 18-to-24-year-olds surveyed in 2020, the CDC said, about 25 percent had seriously considered suicide.
  • Campuses are a microcosm of the larger societal problem of worsening mental health during the pandemic, said Samantha Meltzer-Brody, chair of the department of psychiatry at UNC, who will be leading a university summit on mental health this month. “The needs are massive.”
  • Mental health has historically been underfunded nationally, Meltzer-Brody said, “and the data is very clear that our kids and adolescents are struggling.” That will require more money and more commitment to reach students in a variety of ways, to create connections to combat the pervasive isolation of the pandemic.
  • Schools across the country have taken steps to address the need, from Virginia State University and others adding days set aside for students to decompress, to Dartmouth College, one of hundreds of schools partnering with a suicide prevention nonprofit to study its mental health policies and plan changes.
  • Federal officials say schools are obligated under civil rights law to address the needs of students with mental health disabilities. On Wednesday, the Education Department sent educators a letter urging steps to prevent students from harming themselves. Suicide is a perennial concern on campuses. Now officials say the pandemic has cast a new spotlight on the stress and fear students endure.
  • Without doubt, students have suffered. They were shut out of campuses abruptly in March 2020. Then they endured long stretches of isolation during the last school year, whether they took remote classes from home or lived on or near campus under tight public health restrictions. And this fall is hardly back to normal.
  • The data did not show any significant uptick in suicidal ideation in fall 2020 compared to fall 2019. But it did show increases in stress, social isolation and general anxiety. “These data indicate that colleges and universities should be preparing to specifically support the mental health needs of students during COVID-19, especially in the areas of academic distress, family, eating concerns, trauma, and anxiety, among others,” the center reported in February.
  • At many colleges, the pandemic accelerated a trend toward providing counseling online. That continued even after campuses reopened. “Most of our service right now is still telehealth,” said Jennifer Hung, assistant director of counseling and psychological services for the University of California at Riverside.
  • Now, Hung said, the university is seeking to help students through a new challenge: reentry anxiety. Coming back to campus isn’t as easy as it might seem. “How do we navigate this new normal?” Hung said. Some students need help plugging back in. “We really tailor our workshops to managing stress, managing this transition.”

          “Students Mental Health and Colleges.” Washington Post (October 15, 2021).