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January 19, 2022

ASBMB endorses bill on student mental health

Credit: ASBMB Today, Raechel McKinley

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate have re-introduced the Higher Education Mental Health Act of 2021, which aims to survey and report the current mental health resources at institutions of higher education and provide recommendations to improve services for the mental well-being of American students. The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology has thrown its support behind the legislation.

The bill, which was first introduced in 2019 by U.S. Rep. David Trone, D-Md., and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., calls for the secretary of education to form a commission to study the services, resources and accommodations available to students with mental health disabilities at U.S. colleges and universities and construct a guide for those institutions to use going forward.

“I introduced the (legislation) so that we could learn the best way to help young people suffering from a mental illness,” Trone said. “The facts and figures around young adults’ mental health are staggering: 75% of mental health conditions begin before the age of 24. Keep in mind, the average time between the onset of symptoms and treatment is 11 years. With the Higher Ed Mental Health Act, we can help students right as they’re starting to experience these illnesses and disorders. Further, we can ensure they stay on track and graduate full of promise.”

The ASBMB, which has been working closely with Trone’s office to rally support for the bill, endorsed the legislation in December, citing a National Science Foundation study in 2020 that found graduate students in particular had concerning levels of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

Student mental health challenges predate COVID-19.

Prior to the pandemic, undergraduate students expressed mental health challenges relating to housing and food insecurity while graduate students experienced issues relating to work–life balance and lack of proper mentorship.

Since the pandemic, these issues have exacerbated — with undergraduate students experiencing work-study loss, housing insecurity and even greater food insecurity and graduate students experiencing months of lost research and delayed degree completion.

Rick Page of Miami University, chair of the ASBMB Public Affairs Advisory Committee, said that he’s observed the pandemic’s effects on his own students.

“There are many issues, but overall it seems like they are struggling to cope with stressors from so many different angles,” he said.

In the fall of 2020, a national study of more than 4,000 college students found that over 39% experienced a form of depression and 34% experienced anxiety. Almost two years into the pandemic, these numbers have increasedA recent smaller study found that 59% of undergraduate students close to graduation experienced depression and 60.8% of them experienced anxiety.

If the Higher Education Mental Health Act, which has bipartisan support in the House, becomes law, it will create recommendations to improve the education, retention and graduation of American students.  

Page said institutions of higher education must provide more resources for students to adequately address mental health struggles. The legislation, he said, would be a vital first step because it will help institutions determine exactly which resources are needed.

“The bill has the potential to be transformative for all students, whether at community colleges or four-year colleges, and for undergraduate and graduate students,” Page said.