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November 08, 2021

Elevating the Mental Health Conversation

Credit: Inside Higher Ed, Alexis Gravely

College students and campuses across the country are facing growing mental health challenges that have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department of Education recently offered a federal response to the crisis, and now, members of Congress are adding to the conversation, as institutional leaders and advocates consider what more should be done to help struggling students.

Last month, Representative David Trone, a Democrat from Maryland, and Senator Bob Casey, the Democrat from Pennsylvania, introduced a bipartisan bill that would establish a national commission to study mental health concerns at institutions of higher education. The commission would provide an “environmental scan” of the institutional policies and services available to students, said Laurel Stine, senior vice president of public policy at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. That overview would lead to a road map of what specifically can be done to improve mental health services on campuses.

The bill is cosponsored by several Democratic senators, including Tim Kaine from Virginia and Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota, and Republican representatives John Joyce and Brian Fitzpatrick from Pennsylvania.

“The pandemic was a disaster for the mental health of all Americans, but especially our college students,” Trone said in a release. “Untreated mental health issues at a young age can affect folks throughout their entire lifetimes. We must ensure that our colleges and universities are providing top-notch mental health care for students. This bipartisan bill will make that happen and set our students up for success.”

Research has shown how mental health challenges have risen for young adults throughout the pandemic. A March report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 57 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 had recently experienced symptoms of anxiety and depression. The most recent data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that millions of college-aged adults have had serious thoughts of suicide. It also showed that millions of adolescents aged 12 to 17 have experienced suicidal ideation or attempts within the last year — showing that mental health concerns for those enrolling in colleges won’t be going away.

“That age group is leading up to their college years,” Stine said. “These statistics show that this is an age group that needs greater attention. Congress should be doing all they can to address the alarming statistics that we’re seeing from this age population.”

Colleges and universities vary widely in how they address mental health on their campuses and the backgrounds of the students they serve, and different student populations — such as graduate and international students — have different needs, said Katherine McGuire, chief advocacy officer at the American Psychological Association. Understanding all these factors is critical to addressing the issue, McGuire said, which the commission would work to do by bringing together policy makers, college and university representatives, advocates, family members, and, most importantly, students.

“I think it’s exciting that the bill is striving to bring everyone to the table, including students,” said Laura Horne, chief program officer at Active Minds. “That’s part of why Active Minds is a part of this initiative — we want to make sure that we’re hearing directly from students [to] really elevate their voices among college leaders.”

The legislation is supported by over two dozen organizations and individual institutions. Mental health advocates say the bill helps to elevate the conversation around mental health and highlight it as a national priority — which is what’s needed to make measurable change.

“It’s not enough that we have a handful of colleges and universities that have bought in to this,” Horne said. “We really need nationally for this to be a coordinated effort.”

The legislation joins a series of other federal actions taken in October to address the mental health of students. The Departments of Education and Justice released a fact sheet on how postsecondary institutions should respond to the mental health needs of their students and reminded them that students with mental health disabilities are protected by federal civil rights laws — which both departments can enforce.

The Department of Education also released a separate resource of recommendations for supporting students’ mental health during the pandemic, though it acknowledged there’s limited evidence on the recommendations’ impacts in higher education settings — further highlighting the need for a commission to study the issue.

“We need to hear more about what’s working so we can replicate what’s working and develop more of an evidence base for how to tackle college mental health,” Horne said.

There are plenty of other actions that Congress can take to address mental health on college campuses, according to McGuire. Lawmakers can provide funding for institutions to hire and train additional campus counseling center staff, invest in telehealth services, conduct periodic campus climate surveys to assess the needs of students and train administrators, faculty and students to recognize signs of mental health issues. Congress can also increase support for the Garrett Lee Smith Campus Suicide Prevention grant program and pass legislation that would encourage more comprehensive planning on college campuses to prevent deaths by suicide and other mental health crises.

Those actions are important, but establishing the national commission is “an extremely needed piece of the pie,” said Stine.

“The need for it is great,” Stine said.