Colleges step up prevention and early intervention services for students facing mental health challenges

To help college students navigate mental health challenges without abandoning their degree pursuits, some institutions and organizations are encouraging early screening and supporting the re-entry of students who do need to take a medical leave of absence.

Traditional-age college students (ages 18 to 25) are more likely than other age groups to experience mental illness. According to a survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, as of the end of 2020, 30.6% of young adults in this age group experienced any mental illness in the prior year—compared with 21.0% of all adults—and 9.7% had serious mental illness in that timeframe. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened college students’ mental health struggles and has led to a call for more mental health services for this age group.

Although most young adults who have mental health conditions will not need to stop out of college, medical leaves of absence may save students in crisis from experiencing setbacks detrimental to their academic life and mental health, Zainab Okolo, a licensed marriage and family therapist and a strategy officer at the Lumina Foundation, tells The Hechinger Report. “The danger of students staying on when they actually need help, or need a time to pause, is that they can fail, is that they can waste their investment, or is that they can push themselves over the edge mentally or emotionally in pursuit of their academics,” she explains.

According to The Hechinger Report, about 113,000 students took leaves of absence in 2021, which includes medical leaves of absence for mental health concerns, per data from the National Student Clearinghouse.

Related: Mental health cost concerns driving students away from higher ed, report shows >

Re-entry programs for stopped out students

Each institution has its own policies surrounding medical leaves of absence, and students might have difficulty getting back on track when they return. Several universities and community organizations are establishing campus clinics and college re-entry programs to help college students before and after they stop out due to mental health concerns.

At Boston University, young adults living with a mental health condition can participate in NITEO, an intensive, one-semester coaching program. The program encourages attendees to establish routines and provides wellness seminars and non-credit academic classes, as well as one-on-one counseling. The university also is home to LEAD BU, a one-semester program that supports students on a leave and those who are still enrolled in their college or university. The course, which reinforces students’ coping skills and resilience, is offered for free both in person and online and in English and Spanish at six partner colleges.

Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital, founded the College Mental Health Program (CMHP), which offers support to students planning leaves of absence and assessing when they can return.

The 14-week Fountain House College Re-entry program in New York City helped Wesley Lynch when she stopped out of Mount Holyoke College in 2011 after a depressive episode, just eight credits away from earning her bachelor’s degree, Lynch tells The Hechinger Report.

The Fountain House program emulates a semester structure with non-credit courses and stress management classes that help build back students’ academic routine. Lynch received a scholarship to cover the program’s cost and went on to finish her Mount Holyoke degree in 2020. Lynch says the program not only helped her manage her depression but also gave her a sense of community where she realized, “I’m not alone. I’m not the only person struggling with this.”

Preventive programs and early screenings

However, because such programs are scarce, and can be costly, they “are accessible to very few students who take mental health leaves from school,” The Hechinger Report notes. That makes crisis prevention and early mental health screening all the more important, experts say. Half of all mental health conditions appear before age 14, while 75% begin by age 24, The Hechinger Report notes, leaving colleges on the frontlines to address students’ mental wellbeing as symptoms begin to arise.

“We see colleges and universities as being a critical leverage point for facilitating access to mental health care,” says Greg Hansch, executive director of the Texas affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI-Texas). “If there are no mental health resources on campus, then we’re just throwing caution to the wind.”

Related: With student mental health struggles continuing to mount, colleges seek solutions to increase access, remove stigma >

To normalize mental health awareness among its students—a population largely from underserved communities, where gun violence and high poverty rates affect mental health—Paul Quinn, a historically Black college in Dallas, has established a campus-wide mental health initiative that includes screening and supports for undergraduates as soon as they enroll.

During orientation, students learn about free access to the college’s on-campus clinic, mental health assessments, and campus services. Counselors meet with students in their first year to assess their mental health needs and provide access to on-campus resources, says Stacia Alexander, Paul Quinn’s mental health and wellness clinic director. Before the clinic opened, Paul Quinn had one of the nation’s lowest graduation rates at 1%. Now, officials say that rate has risen to 36%.

Related: Students of color less likely to receive needed mental health treatment, study shows >

Paul Quinn’s proactive outreach to incoming first-year students helped Andrea Maldonado manage the physical and mental effects of Graves’ disease, an immune disorder that elevated her heart rate, limited her athletic activities, and led to sleep disorders and depression. When she began at Paul Quinn in 2019, counselors and school staff repeatedly advised her to visit the university’s mental health clinic. Now a junior majoring in business administration, Maldonado says, “Coming to a place where it was super, super emphasized and pushed … I have been able to get through some of the hardest things I’ve gone through.”

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