Colleges work to meet students’ mental health needs as dropout rates increase

U.S. colleges and universities are struggling to meet students’ mental health needs as demand for services increases and providers grow ever scarcer. In recent surveys, college students have indicated that they are feeling overwhelmed by fear, isolation, economic uncertainty, and the trauma of losing loved ones due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Colleges, meanwhile, are seeing first-to-second-year retention rates fall—and realizing that “often, all it takes to keep a student from dropping out of college is some personal attention,” The Hechinger Report writes.

Related: Georgetown expands mental health services for university community>

A mental health crisis on U.S. campuses

Mental health challenges among young people have intensified in the last decade. In a rare public health advisory on the “alarming increases” in mental health conditions among young people even before the pandemic, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy stated, “in 2019, one in three high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, an increase of 40 percent from 2009.” 

The pandemic has only worsened matters, especially for marginalized communities. Its “negative impacts, such as illness and death in families and disruptions in school and social life, disproportionately impacted those who were vulnerable to begin with and widened those disparities,” the advisory said. 

According to a new report, two-thirds of the 2,000 students surveyed in October 2021 by the Mary Christie Institute and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation said they had faced mental health challenges in the past year. Sara Ketchen Lispson, researcher at Boston University, meanwhile, found that half of 33,000 college students who participated in an online survey last fall “screened positive for depression and/or anxiety.”

“There is a very significant mental health crisis. Students are not OK. Students feeling lost, students feeling depressed, students feeling anxious–it’s weighing really heavily on them,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of sociology and medicine at Temple University, told The Hechinger Report.

Colleges confront labor shortages, complexities of mental health training

Colleges and universities, eager to ensure students can thrive and graduate, are grappling with difficulties in hiring more mental health professionals—and finding ways to extend scarce resources. 

Schools are competing with each other, hospitals, the telehealth industry, and private practices for more counselors in the middle of a nationwide mental health provider shortage. Overwhelmed counselors are leaving college counseling centers for less stressful, better-paying jobs, and even growing programs are at capacity. 

Dr. Sarah Van Orman, the University of Southern California’s chief medical officer for student health, tells The Sacramento Bee that the university has more than doubled the number of mental health professionals on campus in the last three years. “We’ve gone from 30 mental health counselors to 65. We’re still overwhelmed.”

Some institutions are complementing their in-person counseling services with digital offerings like chatbots or virtual visits. Others, like Stanford University and Boston College, offer peer counseling services. The Mary Christie Institute and Born This Way Foundation survey found that almost half of college students said the pandemic made them more likely to pursue peer counseling.

At Boston College, students who volunteer for the Lean On Me peer network undergo 30 hours of initial training and connect students in need of additional support to professional resources and hotlines. While noting that students have benefited from peer support, Matthew Barry, assistant director for community development at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, tells NPR that education and oversight are crucial to program success. “We can’t outsource this work to students who aren’t trained in it,” he says.

Still, schools are looking beyond the counseling center to make contact with students who otherwise might be sidelined by the pandemic. Newly hired re-enrollment coaches at California State University, San Bernardino reach out to students who have dropped out of communication with the university. A quarter of students they reach re-enroll within three days of being contacted by a coach. Lesley Davidson-Boyd, interim associate vice president and dean of undergraduate studies at California State University says, “It’s a lot of hand-holding. Students have said things like, ‘Wow, it’s like somebody actually cared.’”

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