Why Traditional Higher Education Institutions Should Consider an Integrated Approach to Address the College Student Mental Health Crisis

College students bring more than their skills and talents to the classroom. They also carry their emotional, relationship, social, financial and general life issues with them every day. Those that choose higher education institutions with traditional campuses do so as they navigate a new environment, removed from the social support system they may have had at home.

For today’s college students, it’s critical to understand that this generation’s challenges include not only the COVID-19 pandemic but school shootings, polarizing political ideology, racial stress, changing family structures, social media impact, and many more complex issues.

According to SAMHSA’s 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, one in three college-aged students (18-25) experienced a mental illness during the early stages of the pandemic, with one in ten experiencing a severe mental illness. During that time, 18 percent of those who drank alcohol increased their use. Even more frightening, nearly 3.8 million college-aged students had serious thoughts of suicide.

Anxiety and depression are the top two mental health challenges college students experience. A 2021 survey of college students by Statista revealed that 31 percent had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in their lifetime, while 27 percent reported having been diagnosed with depression and other mood disorders.

More recently, a June 2022 survey by The Harris Poll on behalf of Fortune found that 43 percent of college students said they had been diagnosed with anxiety, while 33 percent said they had been diagnosed with depression, both significantly higher when compared with U.S. adults. Additionally, one in five students struggled with suicidal ideation during college, according to a March 2022 study conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse with support from Kaplan.

These statistics show how the severity and complexity of student mental health concerns have increased yearly. Between 2013 and 2021, students experienced a 135 percent increase in depression and a 110 percent increase in anxiety, according to a Healthy Minds study that tracked statistics on depression and anxiety of college students.

Impact on Student Recruiting, Retention and Success

Student mental health is a foremost contributing factor influencing institutional success. The follow-on effects of the pandemic and increase in depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation profoundly impact the student body and affect the ability of all higher education institutions to retain students.

The Fortune survey uncovered that nearly six in ten (59 percent) college students reported that their mental state adversely impacted their grades. Unfortunately, it shouldn’t be surprising that according to a NAMI survey, nearly 64 percent of college students with mental health issues withdraw from school. Moreover, many students who drop out of school are still saddled with student loan debt and have no degree to show for the money they must repay.

When students withdraw from school, colleges and universities must spend more time and resources recruiting new students to fill the vacancies.

Think about the marketing budget and administrative expenses required to recruit new students. They far outweigh the amount of money spent on student mental health.

Additionally, schools and universities continue to see a decline in enrollment since the beginning of the pandemic. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported that undergraduate enrollment dropped 4.7 percent or over 662,000 students in Spring 2022 from Spring 2021. If this trend continues, institutions of higher learning will need to shift their focus on how to keep students in school.

Are Current Campus Resources Enough?

A 2022 survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed found that 76 percent of college and university presidents believe that student resilience is declining due to the prolonged nature of the pandemic. Additionally, 62 percent cite students’ struggle to balance multiple personal and academic life aspects. These, among other issues, are influencing the student demand for mental health services.

Traditional higher education institutions, with the luxury of a central campus and on-site resources like counseling centers, may be overestimating their ability to meet their student’s needs in this environment.  Even the most efficient campus counseling centers have challenges keeping up with the growing student demand for mental health services. It is significant to highlight that the Association of University and College Counseling Center Directors’ (AUCCCD) annual survey demonstrated a steady increase in utilization and demand for campus counseling services. Students are seeking counseling for developmental and situational problems and clinical treatment for mental disorders.

In addition to the growing demand for services, acuity levels for student mental health concerns are increasing. Consequently, cases are becoming more prolonged and require more sessions with a clinician to resolve. The resulting bottleneck is creating longer wait times for new students to be seen and extended time between appointments for students already in the care of a clinician.

Like many professions, clinicians are having difficulty keeping up with the explosion in demand and experiencing high rates of burnout. A survey conducted during the fall semester of 2021 found that nearly 93 percent of campus clinicians reported feeling burned out or stressed. As a result, colleges and universities are also struggling with the Great Resignation. They, too, are having difficulty fully staffing their counseling centers as overworked clinicians leave the field at an alarming rate.

Unfortunately, with the increase in mental health concerns and acuity levels, campus resources will likely remain understaffed and overworked.

So, what can schools do to address the student mental health crisis?

An Integrated Approach to Address Student Mental Health

Student mental health programs, like Guide+Thrive U offered by BHS, establish a partnership with your school’s mental health resources, including counseling centers, to alleviate the burden on the staff and provide students with immediate access to high-quality support and care navigation. Integrated student mental health programs create a more comprehensive ecosystem of student care and offer the right tools and support to keep them safe, healthy and in school.

Here are five reasons your school should consider an integrated approach to address the increasing student demand for mental health services.

1. Backup and after-hours support

Campus clinicians are overwhelmed by the number of students seeking support. In addition to supporting students during regular counseling center hours (typically from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.), clinicians are also asked to be on call to provide emergency after-hours support. It’s no wonder that most campus clinicians feel burned out.

Guide+Thrive U is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and can serve as a backup when the counseling center is fully booked and provides after-hours support to reduce or eliminate on-call hours. Students can call Guide+Thrive U anytime for in-the-moment support. If further care is necessary, the BHS Care Coordinator can facilitate short-term problem-resolution sessions with a clinician in the counseling center or with licensed clinicians within our provider network.

2. Case management for higher levels of care

With the increase in acuity of mental health conditions, counseling centers may have to refer students to long-term care providers or treatment centers. When a case is referred to an outside resource, it needs oversight from the counseling center to confirm that appropriate progress is made and that the issue is resolved. With the overwhelming demand for services, many counseling centers cannot manage the cases referred to outside providers.

In an integrated model, school counseling centers can refer cases that require long-term care or treatment to the student assistance program for case management. Guide+Thrive U Care Coordinators can facilitate the connection to the appropriate resource, alleviating the burden of finding a provider from the counseling center. In addition, the Care Coordinator will periodically check in with the student to ensure satisfaction with the resource and the care they are receiving and encourage them to stay in care when needed. Case oversight is critical for the successful completion of care and getting students back into the classroom.

3. A diverse network of providers

One area of concern with school counseling centers is the lack of diversity of staff counselors. An AUCCCD study discovered that school counseling centers lacked representation concerning race, gender, sexual orientation and disability. Many students would prefer to work with a counselor who shares their identity, making it easier for them to confide in someone who understands their life experiences and the emotional impact it has on them.

Guide+Thrive U can vastly improve student access to a diverse network of providers. Connecting students with providers who meet their preferences allows them to be seen and heard, which improves the likelihood that they will move forward with care and successfully resolve their concerns.

4. Coverage during breaks

Counseling centers are an excellent resource when classes are in session and students are on campus. But what happens when they need support when they are home for the holidays or are traveling for spring break?

Every state has its licensing requirements and only allows counselors to practice within the state where they are licensed. Although some states have taken strides to recognize licenses from other states through the Counseling Compact, not all states have joined. Students who live in states that the Counseling Compact has not recognized would not be able to receive support through the school counseling center while they are away from campus.

With the integrated student assistance program, students can connect with Guide+Thrive U to get in-the-moment support with a master’s level Care Coordinator and connection to licensed counselors in their home location. Rather than only having access to support while only in school, students genuinely have access 365 days a year.

5. Enhanced mental health resources promotion and navigation

A Statista online survey of 103,748 respondents found that 30 percent of college students did not know where to go for on-campus professional mental health services, with only 23 percent strongly understanding their school’s resources.

Guide+Thrive U can help generate awareness and engagement through customized, branded promotional materials that can be distributed in various ways. Additionally, Guide+Thrive U is available to consult with program stakeholders on how to educate key school staff members such as campus counselors, security and threat assessment teams, and student life advisors on the mental health resources available to students, the warning signs to look for and how to make a referral to the program.

Fostering a safe, healthy and productive college experience for students should be the top priority for colleges and universities. Whether your school needs a complete mental health solution or additional support for your counseling center, BHS has multiple Guide+Thrive U options designed to meet the unique needs of your students.

Help your students persist and succeed. Contact BHS today!

Post Written by

Director, Strategic Communications

Nick Koscielniak is the Director of Strategic Communications at BHS. He has over nine years of experience in the healthcare industry, creating and executing communication strategies that attract, engage, and retain clients across various industries and sectors. He is passionate about promoting mental health awareness and solutions in the workplace and beyond. Nick is the co-host of the Simplified Khaos Podcast, where he and his wife share their journey of living more intentionally to help those seeking to simplify their lives and improve mental well-being.