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Mental health has been an enormous challenge for colleges and universities for years. The COVID-19 pandemic made things even more difficult.
Students coming back to college campuses are struggling with increased levels of stress and anxiety. Health centers at many colleges now have difficulty recruiting and retaining staff. Higher ed now faces an ongoing mental health crisis with no end in sight. It’s no wonder that only 13% of attendees of a recent virtual forum hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education said they came into the fall semester feeling strongly prepared to support student mental health.
That forum — Trends in College Students’ Mental Health — brought together four experts to discuss the evolving mental health situation on college campuses and how institutions can best support a larger number of students as the college experience returns to normal.
The panelists included:
- Tierra M. Parsons, Director of Counseling Services at Johnson C. Smith University
- R. Ryan Patel, Psychiatrist at Ohio State University and Chair of the American College Health Association’s mental health section
- Nance Roy, Chief Clinical Officer at The Jed Foundation (JED)
- Sarah Van Orman, Associate Vice Provost and Chief Student Health Officer at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California.
The discussion, moderated by Chronicle staff reporter Kate Hidalgo Bellows, centered on four key trends in the mental health of college students.
Trend No. 1: Anxiety and stress continue to rise
Demand for campus mental health services has grown over the past decade, but panelists said that the increases in utilization during the pandemic have been dramatic. More prevalence of mental distress among college students exists, and many have more acute mental illness.
The metrics and internal data at TimelyCare bear this out: Before the pandemic, 10% of student visits to TimelyCares telehealth service were for mental health. To date this year, it’s 80%.
Depression among students is less prevalent, panelists said, but more students are reporting anxiety and stress. Academic stress, likely the result of learning challenges and other difficulties caused by the pandemic, is on the rise. Van Orman said that COVID-19 triggered “a mental health crisis on top of a crisis.”
Roy said that college students have been deeply affected by recent events, including the nation’s racial and political divide, school shootings, natural disasters, and climate change.
“This is not a safe world for our students to be coming up in,” said Roy. “Many of them haven’t had the experience in life to really put things into perspective. So it’s a very troubling time for many of our young people.”
Trend No. 2: Student mental health is now everybody’s business
It’s not just enough to provide necessary student mental health services. Panelists said that faculty and staff are increasingly part of what they described as a “public health approach” to student mental well-being.
“It’s a case-based approach to provide [assistance] so that when a situation occurs the student is met with empathy, with support, and is directed to the appropriate resources on campus,” said Patel.
More faculty members are writing syllabus statements acknowledging that mental health issues can affect student academic performance. Faculty also are revising attendance policies to encourage students to stay home if they’re sick or struggling.
Panelists said faculty and staff need training to become more aware of the signs of student distress and to learn how to reach out to students with what Roy called “a warm hand.”
“We’re not talking about – campuswide – people having to become therapists,” said Roy. “We’re talking about developing a culture of caring and compassion on campus where there’s no wrong door for a student to walk through for support.”
Colleges should strive to create a sense of belonging, which survey data shows has positive effects on student development and persistence. At Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, for instance, counselors walk and talk with students between classes, at sporting events, and at hangout spots on campus.
“It’s so we can show them that we care, and they value that,” said Parsons.
Trend No. 3: Peer support is more crucial
Often long before anxious and stressed-out students seek professional help, they’ll talk to their friends first about their fears and concerns.
More institutions are adding peer-to-peer programs. Among them are peer chats and peer access lines, which are warm lines — as opposed to hotlines — that students can call to get emotional support. Colleges also have peer advocates who promote peer-to-peer support on campus, as well as peer counselors who work with students who have more severe mental health problems under close clinical supervision of licensed providers.
A growing number of national programs offer online training to teach students basic skills to support their friends and roommates.
“I think the idea of creating a culture of care and providing all students an opportunity to learn basic skills around things like to help a friend, how to talk to a friend, and how to connect a friend to resources is really important,” said Van Orman.
In response to this need for more peer-to-peer support, TimelyCare recently added Peer Community to its virtual health and well-being platform. Peer Community is a judgment-free space for students to seek support in vulnerable and authentic ways, while helping each other navigate similar challenges and common concerns together.
Trend No. 4: More colleges are incorporating telehealth and virtual care options
At college counseling centers, caseloads have soared, and hiring (and keeping) health care professionals is more difficult. Colleges are turning more often to telehealth providers like TimelyCare to keep up with the rising demand for student mental health resources.
“I think it’s less of a conversation between telehealth or in-person care and more about creating a spectrum of services,” said Van Orman. “I think these partnerships, when done correctly, are not replacing on-campus services but really augmenting them. They can be really valuable in getting students the kind of care that they need.”
Panelists listed numerous advantages to deploying a 24-7 virtual mental health platform:
- A telehealth or virtual health and well-being program can supplement existing counseling services. It can help expand capacity during surge times, while also providing uninterrupted mental health care during extended school breaks. It can also deliver care more quickly to more students, especially those with mild to moderate symptoms who often have to wait due to long delays for appointments or students with more high-risk issues.
- Students from other countries, where seeking help for mental health might be stigmatized, are more likely to use telehealth. This is especially true if there’s no additional cost to the student to use the services.
- Telehealth and virtual health care can introduce students to the potential benefits of mental health treatment. “It’s maybe a toe in the door that perhaps then leads to a foot in the door, to perhaps leading to that person coming across the door all the way,” said Patel.
- Telehealth enables colleges and universities to offer a larger quantity of more diverse counselors than they may be able to hire on their own. This empowers schools to give access to counselors — clinicians of color and LBGTQ+ clinicians, for instance — to meet the cultural, linguistic, and other needs of their diverse student populations.
When discussing Johnson C. Smith’s partnership with TimelyCare, Parsons said, “We don’t have enough flowers to give TimelyCare from our campus for the support that they’ve given us. Even if students don’t come to us, we always say we want them to talk to somebody. It’s just been a very valuable asset to our service roster here on our campus.”
Take proactive measures to support students' mental health journeys
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To learn more about student mental health needs on campus, watch The Chronicle’s Trends in College Students’ Mental Health virtual forum. If you’re ready to learn more about virtual care for your campus, contact TimelyCare to discover how a 24/7 virtual health and well-being platform can be a key part of your student engagement and retention strategy that promotes self-care and supports student success.