Even before COVID-19 hit, colleges and universities across the country were seeing increases in the number of students reporting depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and other mental health challenges.
In response, many schools are working to meet the growing demand for services on their campuses by adding staff, expanding community partnerships, creating on-demand programs and more, all while working to ensure services reach those most at risk.
In many ways, colleges “demonstrate what really good community mental health care can look like, in those communities and other organizations outside the education environment that have a lot to learn from what happens in higher education,” said John McPhee, CEO of Jed Foundation, a non-profit organization. For-profit works with high schools and colleges to support students’ mental health, during a webinar hosted by US News & World Report.
Like many organizations, a lot of colleges have adopted more powerful virtual and blended services to reach students during the pandemic. “For many, digital and remote mental health platforms have been more convenient and more culturally efficient in many cases, and so on [they] In fact, it has created more links to care than had already existed before the pandemic.”
Wendy Shanahan Richards, chief medical officer of Aetna Student Health, which works to meet the needs of colleges, universities and students, said. Her organization has begun increasing school partnerships to “ensure that the programs we have and the offerings we offer are aligned with its students,” she said.
In many ways, said Dr. David Walden, director of the Counseling Center at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, and lecturer in the college’s department of psychology, the pandemic has helped institutions focus on their missions and re-evaluate. Any crisis provides that opportunity to really listen to ‘What do I really need? Who am I really?”
This includes a re-examination of public health curricula, said Dr. Shawnti Elbert, associate vice president for health and wellbeing at The Ohio State University. She said such efforts, when done well, include “physically sitting down and talking to students and bringing them to the table, which is a population and public health approach.” “This means looking at how we approach the work we do from a very focused health equity perspective.”
Employment issues are a major concern. In addition to data on high school retention and overall employee turnover, “there is also data that says upwards of 90 percent of college counselors have been burned,” Walden said.
This forced some creative solutions. For example, “In Hamilton, we set up something called a Quarantine Pantry,” Walden said, to provide farm-fresh ingredients for students to cook with at home in a virtual, community-oriented way. “We have set up an outlet for songwriting therapy and a number of different virtual shows that cater to the needs of the moment,” he said.
Although the use of telehealth services has declined since the first part of the pandemic, “we don’t think it’s going to go away,” Shanahan Richards said. To meet the needs of students, Aetna has developed a file Wellbeing web portal that can be used by any student and includes resources and tools for self-examination. “We listen to our schools and our students,” she said. “We want to make sure we do what we can.”
For colleges, MacPhee recommended creating a multidisciplinary leadership team that would oversee mental health planning and involve faculty and various major campus offices, “so that it sends this message that this is for everyone, and it’s everyone’s responsibility, even if mental health services aren’t in the description of their role.” . He also stressed the importance of suicide prevention, which includes “systematically making sure that potential means of suicide are difficult to access.”
Walden said Hamilton has support professionals who “work through different offices on our campuses that focus on specific demographics,” such as the LGBTQ community. “This person can answer very specific questions about that journey of life. … This partnership allows our office to provide quality treatment and quality treatment.”
Elbert said Ohio State is bringing in community partners for full-day educational and professional development training, which can sometimes help the university recruit new practitioners.
Staff care is also important. Burnout “has never been higher, and institutions don’t remain competitive with other opportunities specifically for mental health providers,” Walden said. He said providers and employees want and need connectivity and cohesion, and they want more flexibility in their work choices.
Committee members agreed that remote mental health and digital mental health are very promising in alleviating some of the challenges they discussed. McPhee said these platforms give universities a competitive advantage, and help with student retention and graduation rates, which in turn can boost the bottom line. “From an investment perspective, I think that should be part of the debate, or just part of the issue, around these investments. They really pay dividends, and they really support student success,” he said, “in addition to the unusual core benefit of supporting Mental health of students, faculty, and staff.
Concluding the webinar, Elbert said that public health is a team sport, and so colleges must adopt a collaborative approach when it comes to meeting mental health needs. “We can’t do this work in silos,” she said. “We cannot do this work from a single lens or a specific area of expertise. We must have a multidisciplinary approach to look at this comprehensively.”
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