Under Pressure: Colleges seek new ways to address the mental health crisis and boost student success

The rising rates of mental health issues on college campuses constitute “a new epidemic,” says Richard Scheffler, professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy and School of Public Health at the University of California at Berkeley. “The data supports using that term.”

Indeed, the numbers are staggering. One-third of college students “meet criteria for a clinically significant mental-health problem (depression, anxiety, eating disorder, or self-injury),” according to the Healthy Minds Network. “This translates to nearly seven million students nationwide.”

Moreover, three out of four students have experienced a stressful event in the previous year according to a 2018 study of data from nearly 70,000 students at more than 100 colleges and universities. Twenty percent of those students had considered suicide, and almost 10 percent had attempted it. The results were even more stark among LGBTQ students and students of color.

But there’s a cruel irony hidden beneath these statistics: the students who need help the most may be hiding in plain sight, unaware that help is available or reluctant to seek it.

“Even if you have a student who is doing well in school, it doesn’t mean they aren’t dealing with something internally,” said Cindy Liu, Ph.D., lead author of the 2018 study, in an interview. “You have to peel back more layers. That is the real struggle for parents and colleges — identifying those students who are quietly enduring a significant mental health experience.”

Schools are responding. A recent American Council on Education (ACE) survey of college and university presidents found that 70 percent of respondents had “reallocated or identified additional funding to address the issue.” When asked what they would do with unlimited funds, nearly six in 10 said they would “hire additional staff — mostly in the counseling center.”

Staffing up the counseling center is a logical response. But is it enough? The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors’ 2016-17 survey revealed that “the average wait for all clients for a first appointment was 6.7 business days” — and that was among schools that did not have a waitlist. Among those that did, the wait was 17 business days.

Hiring additional staff could cut wait times. However, this approach ignores other options that would not only complement the counseling center’s services but also significantly expand its reach. The Jed Foundation (JED) calls for a comprehensive, community-based model of protecting student emotional health and preventing suicide. John MacPhee, executive director and CEO of JED, calls it the “no wrong door” model. A student who’s struggling should be able to reach out to any trusted person on campus — including fellow students — for support and encouragement to seek more help.

That’s why JED partnered with EVERFI, a leading education-technology company (and developer of AlcoholEdu for College), to co-develop Mental Well-Being for Students. The 45-minute online course is designed to reduce stigma and uncertainty surrounding mental health and seeking help, and support institutions in creating a culture of well-being through corresponding data insights.

“Awareness of student mental-health challenges is growing,” says Victor Schwartz, JED’s chief medical officer. “But it’s important to understand that this problem can’t be solved by counseling services alone. Schools need a system-wide approach.”

System-wide means students, too; they are a largely untapped but potentially invaluable resource. EVERFI student survey data finds that only three percent of incoming college students are most likely to talk to a counselor when experiencing stress or emotional challenges, while 45 percent would most likely to turn to their friends for help and support. Meanwhile, Healthy Minds Network surveys show that more than three-quarters of students agree that “I am responsible to help if a friend is struggling.” The problem? Per EVERFI survey data, less than 10 percent of students have received any training related to mental health.

Mental Well-Being for Students helps fill that gap. Developed in collaboration with leading experts in the field, the course approaches mental-health education in a number of ways: teaching students specific techniques for supporting their mental health, providing strategies for recognizing challenges, and offering guidance for seeking help and supporting others in need.

JED and EVERFI’s course aims to engage students early and proactively equip them with skills and information to manage their well-being. This approach is less reactionary, less costly, and offers potentially high return on investment through retention since students with mental health challenges are twice as likely to leave without graduating.

In its 2019 report “Investing in Student Mental Health,” the American Council on Education stated: “[T]he negative effects of mental health problems on student retention suggest that institutional investments in student mental health are likely to generate both increased tuition revenues for institutions and higher earnings for students who attain a college degree.”

The numbers speak for themselves. According to an ROI calculator developed by researchers at the Healthy Minds Network, a population-level prevention program for 10,000 undergraduates, costing $2/student, could retain more than 300 students who might otherwise leave. Assuming an annual tuition of $30,000, that represents as much as $31 million in revenue.

The ACE report ends with four sets of recommendations: assess student needs, enhance accessibility of services, integrate mental health promotion and prevention throughout the campus system, and set the tone regarding mental health on campus.

Mental Well-Being for Students helps young adults prioritize mental health by offering tools and resources to help recognize and manage concerns, and find support for themselves and their peers,” says MacPhee. “The course can easily be integrated into a first-year-experience curriculum, residence-life activities, or first-year advising conversations. At JED, we aim to equip young people with the knowledge and support they need to navigate challenges and to thrive. We are thrilled to have partnered with EVERFI on the development of this course.