The mental health crisis on college campuses, prior to 2020, often referred to the overwhelming demand on campus mental health centers and their frequent inability to meet that demand. Waiting lists and inadequate staffing levels to support student mental health needs were often at the center of the discussion. Along came the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in many students losing access to free, accessible mental health services provided at their institutions. Scores of news articles described the new mental health crisis—students without access to mental health supports were facing a new online campus environment while many students faced the stresses of living at home and navigating the health and economic challenges presented during the past year. The new mental health challenges facing college students are vast, and include having lost loved ones to the pandemic, experiencing financial challenges resulting from jobs lost over the last year, and falling behind in academics. Other vulnerable populations, such as student parents, LGBT students who aren’t out at home, and undocumented students who previously felt safe at their institutions, are experiencing even greater burdens that impact their mental health.
State and federal legislators are taking notice as well, with the U.S. House of Representatives designating May as Mental Health Awareness Month. The House and Senate have proposed a variety of bills aimed at providing support for student mental health in the 117th Congress. For example, HR 4327, the Enhancing Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Through Campus Planning Act, requires the Department of Education to encourage institutions of higher education to develop and implement comprehensive campus mental health and suicide prevention plans. One important way that Congress has tried to help address the distress students are experiencing is the TREAT Act (S 168/HR 708), which allows for licensing reciprocity between states for mental health providers. Other proposed legislation has a more limited scope, focusing on suicide prevention and hazing reporting at institutions of higher education.
In addition to federal level legislation aimed at supporting student mental health, there have been more than 100 bills regarding mental health have been introduced at the state level as well. Many of these bills involve providing students with suicide prevention resources, but others involve addressing the mental health needs of veterans on campus and the formation of task forces to better understand mental health needs of students on campus. The good news is that the student mental health crisis on campus, which existed before 2020, and has been exacerbated by the pandemic, is not going unnoticed by legislators and policymakers.
The other good news to be found as we emerge from the pandemic is that this flurry of legislative activity provides robust opportunities for higher education policy groups, student affairs professionals, and students to be involved in advocating for solutions that can greatly increase college student access to mental health support services. In addition to those campus professionals and student groups whose roles have always involved meeting student mental health needs on campus, the pandemic has opened the eyes of many faculty members to students’ mental health needs. A recent study by the Boston University School of Public Health indicated that faculty members are talking to students about mental health more than they ever have before. Additionally, the report finds that “professors feel a responsibility toward students who are suffering and would welcome better—even mandatory—training on the topic,” according to an article on the study found in Inside Higher Ed.
As the country, and higher education along with it, begins to reemerge from the past year and assess the experience for lessons learned, there are some pandemic-related changes that some are eager to keep. Increased access to support services for online students and more flexibility in classes for parenting and working students are just two that have been cited in related to higher education. In the realm of student mental health, greater access to telehealth options and a greater investment in student mental health by everyone on campus are two additional features of post-pandemic life that many want to see stick around. Some of these changes will be addressed at the federal and state policy level, and others such as training for faculty members on getting students access to mental health resources when needed, will be implemented at the campus level. Perhaps this rosy outlook on college student mental health heading into the coming year is a bit optimistic, but after the last year, maybe a little optimism is in fact warranted.