Mental health services a wise use of relief funds, officials say

The U.S. Department of Education this month urged colleges and universities to consider spending federal coronavirus relief funding on mental health resources and services, a use case that campus leaders may not have previously considered, Higher Ed Dive reports. Since the pandemic’s onset, the government has provided postsecondary institutions with approximately $76 billion in COVID-19 relief. Officials have suggested a range of potential uses, but mental health services were not included in the original Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) legislation.

College leaders have long been focused on meeting students’ mental health needs, but demand for those services has escalated during the pandemic—as has the shortage of mental health professionals. In a September 2021 survey of college presidents, 73% identified student mental health as a pressing concern, up from 41% in April 2020. “Mental health is overwhelmingly the top concern we hear from presidents,” Jonathan Fansmith from the American Council on Education tells Inside Higher Ed. “It’s a very challenging environment for institutions, and these things are expensive to do.”

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

A range of possible mental health investments

In its May 19 guidance, the education department offered detailed examples of how colleges and universities can use federal aid to create and expand mental health resources for students and staff. Noting that “the responsibility for campus mental health does not just lie with the institution’s counseling center,” the education department emphasized that “resources should reach all aspects of campus life to create a culture of care.” It outlined a range of allowable uses of relief funds, including:

  • Hiring additional mental health counselors and social workers, and increasing the diversity of mental health staff
  • Expanding online mental health counseling services to provide around-the-clock support
  • Increasing wellness supports
  • Establishing crisis hotlines 
  • Offering mental health first aid classes and other materials to help faculty and staff improve mental health literacy and intervene when needed
  • Training students and other campus stakeholders in peer-support practices
  • Helping students meet their housing, food, transportation, child care, health care, and other basic needs, as basic need insecurity is a major contributor to mental health challenges

The guidance also reminds institutions that mental health conditions can be considered disabilities and encourages colleges and universities to make “reasonable accommodations that help ensure an equal opportunity to participate in higher education.”

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

While the education department acknowledges that HEERF grants are one-time funds, officials say they hope the investments made possible by relief funding will prove successful, laying the foundation for further philanthropic, institutional, and community support.

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

“If there is one thing I’ve heard while speaking with college students throughout the nation, it’s been the need for greater mental health supports on campus,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement. “We must make sure our colleges and universities have the tools and resources to help students, faculty, and staff heal from the grief, trauma, and anxiety they endured amid the pandemic.”

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