Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Mental Health on Campus: The Need for Comprehensive Reform and Supportive Policy

By Elizabeth ClarkePublished January 1, 2017

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This post discusses the need for more comprehensive mental health programming in higher education, especially in light of recent, highly publicized tragedies. Institutional and government level policy-makers play an integral role in developing the financial and information-based platforms necessary to spark improvement.
By Elizabeth Clarke
With the recent influx of school shootings in the United States, mental health awareness among college students has become more relevant and important than ever before. In the past month alone, shootings at Northern Arizona University, Texas Southern University, and Umpqua Community College further saddened a shaken nation. In a totally different form of publicity, the spread of social media has allowed young people's struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts to inch into the public's consciousness. For example, the 2014 suicide of Madison Holleran, a well-liked and beautiful University of Pennsylvania student, shed a newly brightened light on the hidden struggles of many college students. Academic, social, career, and family stressors can take their tole during the college-aged years, even if perfectly crafted Instagram accounts say otherwise. 

In this new age of mass media, the dialogue on student mental health tends to revolve around physically harmful acts, both self-inflicted and those committed towards others. But in reality, campus violence and suicide are two of many factors that contribute to the mental health issue on college campuses. Improving collegiate mental health programs could not only save lives by preventing mass shootings and suicides, but it could also improve the lives of millions who will never take such drastic measures, yet suffer nonetheless.

The issue only becomes more urgent when confronted with data on the current state of mental health among college students. According to the 2013 National Survey of College Counseling Centers, 95% of the directors surveyed believe that the number of students with serious psychological problems seems to be increasing, but only 58% of directors can provide students with access to on-campus psychiatric evaluation.  Furthermore, of the 69 suicides reported in the 2013 survey, 80% of the students had not sought help at their counseling centers.  This data underlines the complicated need for mental healthcare reform: mental illness diagnoses are more prevalent, many schools don't' provide students with sufficient services, and students often fail to seek out services even when they are available.

A recent article in The Week made an argument for a successful university mental health program that encompasses a number of factors which aren't normally associated with mental illness. Thought college students traditionally suffer from academic stress or difficult transitions, a broader mental health framework includes focus on life skills, social connectedness, physical wellness, environmental safety, substance use, student identification systems, policy and strategic planning, help-seeking systems, and more. Successful programs must acknowledge the diversity of issues that students face, which can range from overt illness to underlying and sometimes unconscious struggles.  Furthermore, the article outlines the importance of peer-to-peer contact in order to facilitate supportive conversation within the student body. This proves especially important for students who may be resistant to seeking professional help. 
Though it seems almost impossible to create such holistic mental health programming, schools such as Cornell University, University of Texas Austin, and University of Minnesota continue to push the movement forward. As a winner of a 2015 Active Minds Healthy Campus Award, Cornell was particularly praised for its "Notice and Respond" training.  This program offers faculty, graduate teaching assistants, and staff members in-depth seminars on how to proactively confront concerning student behavior. Cornell students cans also participate in the "Friend to Friend" workshop that provides training for effective peer support and intervention.  Finally, groups all over Cornell's campus can request workshops on individual stress-management and life-balance techniques for a hectic school year.  This comprehensive approach goes far beyond the crisis management systems that should be in place at all schools, which include hotlines and psychiatric services.  Rather, Cornell and other schools take an approach which recognizes all community members as key players in building a foundation that promotes connectedness and overall wellbeing.

Of course, such education and resources require money and effort on the part of college administrations. There is no governmental mandate that says schools much provide mental health services, and the decision not to offer such services is often a financial decision. In an age of soaring tuition costs, many administrators believe that mental health programming would raise tuition even more and further anger the public. However, research by the Healthy Minds Network has shown that the benefits of mental health treatment, such as keeping tuition-paying students enrolled, more than cover the costs of implementation. There is building evidence that prevention and treatment of mental illness among students may prove economically efficient for schools in the long run.

In the past year, the American Psychological Association successfully advocated for the 2015 Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act Reauthorization, which will hopefully help more schools afford on-campus mental health programs. The Act contains funding for the Campus Suicide Prevention Grant, a national program designed to "assist colleges and universities in building essential capacity and infrastructure to support expanded efforts to promote wellness and help-seeking of al students." The program has already supported over 175 institutions of higher education.  However, 2015 grants are capped at $102,000 annually, and the program's total available funding for 2015 is just over $2 million. Increased funding is needed to help more schools build the comprehensive programs required to make a lasting impact. The aim of the program should go beyond suicide prevention to fostering overall mental health among students. Debilitating issues such as academic anxiety or OCD may not be equally life-threatening as depression, but they nonetheless deserve national attention.

Rankings or membership organizations constitute other ways to increase the abundance and effectiveness of mental health programming at various schools. The college application process has long been a game of lists. US News and World Report ranks college characteristics ranging from "Best Colleges for Veterans" to "Most Students Studying Abroad;" why not create a ranked list based on mental health programming? In one of the first programs of its kind, The Jed Foundation, an organization devoted to ending college-aged suicide, has partnered with the Clinton Foundation to distinguish the most successful campus mental health programs. The Jed and Clinton Health Matters Campus Program awards schools with the status of Campus Program Member if they demonstrate a commitment to following a comprehensive, integrated framework laid out by the organization.

These schools work tirelessly to gain this recognition, yet it remains largely unknown among students applying to college and their families. With the recent unveiling of the Obama administration's new College Scorecard website, now is an apt time to increase the visibility of such information. The government should include Campus Program membership status in each school's profile on College Scorecard, or create a new section of the website devoted to health and wellness information rather than school finances.

Understandably, there is an argument that rankings or membership programs don't fairly represent the diversity of mental health issues that students may face, from schizophrenia to test-taking anxiety. Yet the proliferation of ranked lists, distinguishing programs, and government involvement will help mental health to gain the same attention as other school characteristics.   Mental health programming is largely left out of the average students' college decision-making process; as a result, schools don't devote sufficient resources to such programs. Increased attention will push schools to apply for grants or spend more money on such programming, and perhaps the federal government will feel pressure to allocate more money to funds such as the Campus Suicide Prevention Grant. 

The ultimate goal is to make the existence of comprehensive mental health programming a central expectation for successful schools. This will not only help those diagnosed with mental illnesses to make more informed decisions, but it will show all students that mental health excludes no one; wellness should always be an important factor students' lives. No one is truly free from mental health "issues," and it shouldn't take more tragedies for the public to come to that realization.