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

The death of Stanford University star soccer player Katie Meyer, the fourth student at the university to die by suicide in the last 13 months, has renewed questions about how colleges are addressing student mental health, according to The Washington Post. Solutions to the campus mental health crisis are complex, with schools pursuing a range of services and supports, including providing 24/7 on-campus support, expanding access through telehealth and online services, hiring life coaches of color, and implementing more inclusive services that encourage students to be more open and honest about their mental health and wellbeing.

‘I haven’t had a normal year of college that wasn’t impacted by Covid.’

Meyer’s death highlights the ongoing mental health crisis many college students face, Martha Compton of Grand River Solutions, a higher education consulting firm, tells The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Certainly, when somebody is an elite athlete, there’s a significant amount of pressure there,” Compton explains. “But there’s a significant amount of pressure on every college student.” 

Data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration show that 10.2 million people between ages of 18 and 25 have experienced a mental, behavioral, or emotional health issue, an increase from 22.1 percent in 2016 to 30.6 percent in 2021. Ongoing disruptions since the pandemic have exacerbated those challenges, and more than 70 percent of respondents in the Fall 2021 American College Health Association National College Health Assessment reported having moderate or serious psychological distress. 

In the midst of this crisis, students are advocating for more open dialogue about mental health. Talking about mental health is “one of the best things you can do to prevent suicide,” Kelsey Pacetti, a senior at the University of Wisconsin and president of her campus chapter of the mental health advocacy group Active Minds, tells The Hechinger Report. As a self-described “multiple-suicide-attempt survivor,” Pacetti is one of many students pressing campuses to be more honest and responsive to the problems students face. “When I started to be open with other people is when things started to turn around for me,” Pacetti says.

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

Increasing mental health services through virtual therapy

According to an American Council on Education national survey last spring, college and university presidents reported student mental health as their top concern, with a majority reporting that their universities are incorporating telehealth mental services in efforts to address these issues.

During the pandemic, colleges relied on virtual mental health support for students unable to visit on-campus counseling centers, but with demand for in-person appointments rising after students returned to campus, some schools continued to offer virtual visits to increase access. The University of Virginia is one of 170 colleges that turned to TimelyCare, a virtual platform with 24/7 mental healthcare support run by Texas-based telehealth company TimelyMD. Instead of potentially waiting weeks for an in-person appointment, students who use TimelyCare can speak to a counselor or psychiatrist within days via video, text, phone, or virtual chat or receive emergency mental-health support in minutes.

Related: Georgetown expands mental health services for university community>

Similarly, Mantra Health, a digital mental health clinic founded in 2018, has partnered with 52 campuses—including Penn State, Miami Dade College, and MIT—to serve 500,000 students across the country.

Erasing stigma by offering more inclusive wellness support

Some universities are working to reach students from underrepresented or marginalized backgrounds through employing in-person and online mental health services that reflect the diversity of their students. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 63 percent of Black people equate a mental health condition with a personal weakness, and Mikyta Daugherty, director of counseling services at Georgia State University (GSU), notes in Inside Higher Ed that rather than seek mental health services, some Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) students attempt to “push through it.”

To encourage Black students to seek mental health services when they need it, Johnson C. Smith University, a historically Black institution in Charlotte, requests therapists of color for its students using TimelyMD services. Tierra Parsons, the college’s director of counseling services, says employing therapists from diverse backgrounds “helps to address the stigma around mental health and makes our students a little bit more comfortable with accessing and utilizing the services.”

Meanwhile, GSU seeks to reduce stigmas surrounding mental health among its students, three-quarters of whom are BIPOC, by using the peer-to-peer online service Togetherall. An online community for students from different colleges and universities, Togetherall allows students to speak freely and anonymously about their experiences. Licensed mental health professionals moderate the platform 24/7 to intervene when online chats reveal a potential crisis. “Togetherall removes much of the fear BIPOC and other students generally have about coming forward due to its anonymous and judgment-free environment, encouraging that important first step and subsequent sharing,” Daugherty says.

Unmasked, a mental health support app founded in 2020 by Dartmouth student Sanat Mohapatra, now connects 12,000 users at 46 campuses. Like the Togetherall community, students can post anonymously on Unmasked to share experiences they’ve had with counselors, discuss the medications they take (along with their side effects), and how they confront social anxiety.

Daugherty sees peer-to-peer connections as a way to reach students who need outreach but are reluctant to use traditional mental health services. The “Peer Counseling in College Mental Health” survey of over 2,000 U.S. students conducted by the Mary Christie Institute and the Born This Way Foundation found that 48 percent of students would be more likely to use peer counseling since disruptions caused by the pandemic. In comparison, 58 percent of Black students, 54 percent of Latinx students, 61 percent of Transgender students, and 54 precent of first-generation students said they were more likely to use peer-to-peer counseling. For Daugherty, online peer-to-peer networks “normalize experiences and help students feel OK in reaching out. In this shared experience lies the power to unite us.”

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