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Mental Health Support on Campus: Colleges Offering New Options


Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health concerns among college students, and they have been increasing over the past four years, according to the most recent report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health.

In addition, the percent of students reporting “threat-to-self” (including non-suicidal self-injury, serious suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts) at some time in their lives has increased for seven years in a row among student seeking treatment. Students are also increasingly likely to report a past traumatic experience.

Across the country, colleges and universities are exploring innovative ways to meet students’ needs for mental health treatment, often expanding or adapting their services. Most schools offer some form of free counseling to students, but there may be a limit on the number of free sessions and substantial wait times to access services.

In response to student advocacy and a petition, Skidmore College in Sarasota Springs, N.Y., added additional counseling staff and a 24-hour hotline for urgent mental health needs. The counseling center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute recently added a triage counselor to help address long wait times and provide same-day care to students in distress.

Stigma can still prevent some students from seeking help; the University of Denver has created specific hours of anonymous walk-in counseling each day. Students can come in during these hours for help from a trained professional and not be required to provide any personal information.

Some schools are working to meet needs through educational programs and group sessions. At the University of Florida, for example, group therapy is available for targeted groups, including first generation students, graduate students, international students, people of color, sexual assault survivors and LGBTQ students.

Schools often have systems set up to respond to after-hours crises. The country’s largest community college system, the California Community College system, partnered with the Crisis Text line in May 2017 to provide students a free anonymous way to get help during mental health emergencies. Anxiety and stress are the top issues addressed through the Crisis Line and financial insecurity and homelessness are challenges reported by many students in California.

Florida State University is initiating a new educational effort this fall aimed at fostering resilience among incoming freshmen. Under the Student Resilience Project freshmen will be required to take an online trauma and resilience program to learn about the potential effects of past trauma. Students will also learn strategies for coping and dealing with the stresses and challenges of college life.

Ohio State University has developed a mobile app to help support student mental well-being. The app offers multimedia strategies and connects students to tools that help promote wellness, balance and calm, such as breathing exercises and guided imagery for test anxiety. It provides a variety of ways to access mental health services on campus.

Health Equity and Diverse Populations

Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor and director of the College Mental Health Program at McLean Hospital, noted in a recent online chat that campuses are struggling to address one important issue: the mental health needs of students with diverse and marginalized identities. Many schools are seeking additional training and workshops that meet the mental health needs of increasingly diverse student bodies, she said. The Steve Fund and the Jed Foundation recently published the Equity in Mental Health Framework, evidence-based recommendations for campuses to follow for achieving mental health equity.

Student Rights and Accommodations

Students living with mental illness have legal protections and rights to accommodations. Nearly all universities are subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act and many states also have anti‐discrimination laws that apply. Accommodations a student might need include extra time to complete exams, permission to take a leave of absence, access to assistive technology, transportation services or accommodations in housing. (More information is available from the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.) Typically, students must register with the campus disability office and provide documentation to access these accommodations.

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