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New Challenges for Colleges Mean New Challenges for Mental Health

A recent study showed that sixty percent of college students say the pandemic has made it harder to access mental health care, even as they are under so much more stress.

Maybe it says something good about colleges, or maybe it says something unsettling about society,  but in the modern era offering mental health services to students has become an increasingly important part of most colleges’ mission.  

As more and more colleges suspend in person classes, it’s also raised a key question:  how do online colleges offer much needed mental health services to a population that is, by definition, at a distance?  

As EdSource recently reported:

“A major concern, professionals say, is that students in distress will be harder to spot and offer help to. With online classes, professors may be unable to pick up clues such as weight loss or absence. With most dorms closed, resident assistants can’t drop in on students who are not leaving their rooms or are abusing alcohol and drugs.”

Now, let’s not kid ourselves - any mental health system that relies on largely untrained professors to casually notice that students (from a diverse range of cultural backgrounds) may be experiencing mental health issues is broken to begin with.  That is not an ideal situation.  A strong case can be made that it is one more attempt to have schools address all the social problems that society as a whole prefers not to try and address.

But until society gets its act together, schools and colleges have been trying to pick up the slack for years - and now it seems so much more complicated.

It will be harder students to just “drop in” for support.  It will be harder for professors to notice possible warning signs.  And there are other issues as well:

  • Online counseling may not be appealing to some students;
  • Getting remote therapy can be tricky for students who live with their families and don’t have much privacy;
  • Because psychology licensure is awarded by states, college therapists who would be licensed to give in-person sessions to students are not actually licensed to give sessions to students who are calling in remotely, from out of state;
  • Online sessions raise potential privacy concerns that are distinct from in-person sessions and need to be handled on their own terms;
  • The efficacy of online therapy as opposed to in-person therapy has not been well studied - we don’t really know when it’s most effective, and when it’s least helpful.

“We are in completely unknown territory here” said Ben Locke, executive director of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health. As in so many other aspects of the global pandemic, colleges are trying to do more with less, and there is no clear plan.  Inside Higher Ed recently reported that at least 20% of colleges have actually been forced to lay off staff who might otherwise offer support to students.  

What we do know is that students are looking for help.  A study of 46,000 students, nationwide, by the Berkeley based Student Experience in the Research University Consortium found that a third of students are showing symptoms of major depression or anxiety - a significant increase from previous years.  And those studies were conducted before wildfires started sweeping the American west.  

One approach colleges are taking is to make links to their student support and mental health services prominently placed in every communication with students.  They’re also experimenting with a larger variety of offerings - relaxation and meditation workshops, for example.  They aren’t really a replacement for therapy or substance abuse counseling, but they still could help people who are struggling.  Some are offering text-based counseling, so that students don’t risk being overheard by the people they’re living with.  Some schools are offering more “wraparound services” - help with financial counseling, housing assistance, and other issues that students will struggle with, to ago along with traditional forms of counseling.

This is one of Calbright College’s primary approaches:  we know that any issue that impacts our students' lives is also going to impact their education, and the more we can help them smooth the road they’re on, the better.

But for all that they can experiment, innovate, and develop best practices, colleges will never be able to solve a mental health crisis that is not of their making.  For all the struggles they’re having, the fact is that they are in fact taking the mental health of their students seriously.  Things will only get significantly better when the rest of society does the same.