Photo Credit: ISTOCK

University mental health services need a major upgrade. (Op-Ed)

The mental health services offered by universities across the country simply don’t cut it. Student mental health is worsening at an alarming rate. Students are overwhelmed, facing challenging coursework, social relationships, strain from tuition costs, and navigating a post-COVID world. Not to mention social injustice, adjusting to life away from home, and the threat of mass shootings. The American Psychological Association reported that in the 2020-2021 school year, more than 60% of college students met the diagnostic criteria for at least one mental health problem. Universities are severely understaffed and cannot meet this demand.

Mental health and wellness events, as well as peer counseling, are fallible. Not every student is going to feel comfortable going to an event that prioritizes mental health; they may feel anxious in crowds, or ashamed to admit that they are struggling. Peer counseling seems rather risky, as no amount of training can compare to a state-licensed therapist, counselor, or psychiatrist.

Most universities are utilizing telehealth services, a tool that allows them to reach more students from the comfort of their dorm rooms, apartments, and homes. This is a great step forward, but it’s not enough for high-risk students who suffer from severe psychiatric distress.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has filings on more than 50 substantiated cases in which universities failed their at-risk students by not adhering to federal guidelines over the past five years. These reports include ignoring ADA accommodations, not having enough staff members certified in treating mental health issues, and denying counseling to students who were victims of sexual assault.

In December 2019, Central Pennsylvania’s Central Community College, HACC, admitted to multiple missteps in providing students with mental health support. HACC’s solution was to enter a one-year contract with an EAP service to provide their students with clinical mental health care as well as therapy. Partnering with licensed mental health professionals is an excellent way to ensure every student is receiving the appropriate level of care. Why haven’t more universities followed HACC’s lead?

Universities owe it to their students to assist them through their entire collegiate career, especially when it comes to mental health. The current system is not working, and the only way forward is to update, upgrade, and rework programs, policies, and offerings for students. Students pay a high tuition price; they deserve to have accessible, effective mental health services.

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