Experts Predict Challenging Time For Campus Counseling Centers This Fall

Experts Predict Challenging Time For Campus Counseling Centers This Fall

Christie Campus Health sponsored a webinar yesterday in which four experts discussed the student mental health challenges that colleges and their counseling centers will face as campuses reopen in September.

Major take-home messages from the experts included:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic will be followed by a serious and prolonged “echo pandemic” of mental health problems that will greatly exacerbate negative long-term trends in college student mental health.
  • Mental health is strongly related to academic achievement and racial inequities.
  • New approaches to triage and technology are key to meeting rising student needs.
  • Faculty can play a critical role in creating a supportive campus culture.
  • Federal relief dollars represent a unique opportunity for colleges to invest in student mental health.

The one-hour webinar was entitled COLLEGE STUDENT MENTAL HEALTH POST COVID: Trends, Approaches to Care and Funding Opportunities. It was moderated by Paul Barreira, MD, Henry K. Oliver Professor of Hygiene Emeritus and Former Director of University Health Services at Harvard.

The scope of the problem was detailed by Sarah Lipson, PhD, Associate Director of the Healthy Minds Study and Assistant Professor at Boston University School of Public Health. Dr. Lipson presented data from the Healthy Minds Study which covers over 400 campuses and 350,000 students. The data clearly show that college student mental health has been worsening for many years, with the percentage of students screening positive for symptoms of anxiety and depression almost doubling in the past seven years to 34% and 39% respectively.  Over 80% of college students now report that they have experienced at least one day of academic impairment in the past month due to a mental health issue, and almost 30% indicate that access to mental health services has gotten more difficult. The Healthy Minds data also show major racial inequities in the prevalence and impact of student mental health problems.

The approaches that a college counseling center can take to better meet student needs was addressed by Tricia Hale, LPC, CPCS, Deputy Chief Officer-Student Affairs and Director of Counseling at Valdosta State University, who described the new approaches to delivering student mental health services that have been implemented at her school. These include a triage model that was initiated pre-pandemic and a telecounseling capability that was set up when the pandemic hit. The triage model focuses on matching the level of care to the level of a student’s problem. It requires the center to strengthen its offerings at the low-risk end of the spectrum – such as in person groups and in-the-moment support services - and to actively promote the effectiveness of these offerings to students. Telecounseling, which was so important during the pandemic, will continue to be offered when students return to campus because it improves student access by reducing stigma and increasing convenience.  Valdosta also benefited from a University System of Georgia student mental health initiative that used Federal relief funds to implement a multi-component platform of services supported by Christie Campus Health.

While most considerations of college mental health take a health services perspective that focuses on the students and the counseling center, the challenges of the “echo pandemic” will be such that schools will need to take a public health approach that focuses on prevention and the environment. Nicholas A. Covino, Psy.D., President of William James College, cautioned that thinking campuses will be “back to normal” this fall is a major mistake given the isolation, trauma, and helplessness experienced by college students during the past year.  He recommends that campuses work to develop a campus environment that helps students develop social and emotional mastery by engaging emotions, facilitating relationships, and fostering behavioral mastery. He especially endorsed the importance of encouraging the campus community, especially the faculty, to become actively involved in promoting student mental health.  Faculty and staff should be offered training to become more knowledgeable about and comfortable with mental health issues, and they should be encouraged to engage with students as supportive adults.

Richard Doherty, MPA, President of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts (AICUM), focused on the unique opportunity presented by COVID relief funding from the Federal government.  The three relief bills approved in the last six months provide significant funds to schools and to states just as the scope and significance of the “echo pandemic” are becoming more widely understood. The CARES, CRRSA, and ARP Acts, for example, will provide approximately $742 million to AICUM member schools, and similar levels of funding are going to schools across the country. Now is the time for campus counseling leaders to advocate strongly for their schools to use Federal relief dollars to invest in student mental health. Their key message needs to be that student mental health has shifted from a “Nice Service to Have” to a “Must Service to Have.”  It will be one of AICUM’s top priorities for this year.

The expert presentations were followed by a brief Q&A session. You can watch the webinar HERE.

Visit our website for more information about Christie Campus Health and its CONNECT@College suite of student mental health offerings for colleges and universities.

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