As parents and students prioritize mental health, higher education must respond

According to a new report released by the CDC, nearly three in five teenage girls reported feelings of persistent sadness or hopelessness - a staggering 60 percent increase in the last decade.
Cindy Jordan
Cindy Jordan
Cindy Jordan is a former D.C. area police officer and marketing strategist. After witnessing a family member’s mental health crisis, she co-founded Pyx Health, a mental health service focused on addressing loneliness and social isolation.

Long gone are the days where an attractive campus or competitive academic program is enough to attract and retain the best and brightest students. A recent study uncovered a new trend where parents consider mental health their top priority for their college-bound kids – perhaps even more important than actually having their kids go to college. This translates to parents increasingly prioritizing the availability and robustness of mental health services when ranking their first-choice schools for their kids. In fact, one university executive recently told me the topic of mental health services comes up in well over half of the conversations with prospective parents and students. This means that in order to achieve your incoming class goals, you must address scaling mental health solutions to your campus. But with limited budgets, mental health professional staffing shortages, and a growing demand, how can higher ed successfully meet these important needs?

As background to this trend, it is critical to understand that youth mental health is in sharp decline. The situation is particularly dire among teen girls, who are likely to constitute at least half of your prospective enrollees. According to a new report released by the CDC, nearly three in five teenage girls reported feelings of persistent sadness or hopelessness – a staggering 60 percent increase in the last decade. Other groups, like racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+, and low-income students are at even higher risk of mental health challenges per the U.S. Surgeon General’s recent health advisory. Understanding the diversity of your class and the mental health issues that impact them will help to shed light on the upcoming demand for these services, and help you chart a course for where to go from here.

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Prevention is key

Before high-cost, resource-intensive supports are needed for more serious mental health crises, a preventive program can help mitigate problems before they arise. These programs should focus on addressing loneliness – or the perception that many students have of feeling alone.

Loneliness correlates closely with other common mental health challenges like anxiety and depression, and according to NCBI we know that at age 18, 70% of adolescents experience recurring loneliness. Specifically, incoming college students are especially vulnerable to loneliness as they leave their entire support system behind. The fact is that reducing the occurrence of loneliness in your student population will decrease the pressure on other potentially more expensive and intensive mental health resources and positively impact the mental health journey for your students.

Leverage peer support and technology to optimize the use of services

While most higher education institutions already offer traditional in-person therapy services, therapist shortages and greater student demand may mean that many individuals will have to wait longer between appointments, which could have serious consequences. Staffing your way out of the problem isn’t an option nor is relying on expensive telehealth solutions that exclude a significant percent of your student body. Innovative interventions are available and effective at bridging this gap.

Instead of solely focusing on expanding traditional therapy, there is a big opportunity for institutions to invest in solutions that offer on-demand mental health services delivered through technology and non-clinical professionals, like peer support specialists. These offerings combine a science- and peer model-based approach and can act as a configurable extension of the school’s existing therapy services, ensuring student privacy while effectively addressing mental health issues in an affordable, scalable way.

In the past, colleges and universities invested in resources like state-of-the-art physical fitness centers with the goal of attracting prospective parents and students. And no doubt, these investments have delivered strong ROI. The same level of commitment now needs to be directed towards mental health. The ROI of supplemental mental health services and support that includes peer support and other non-clinical offerings can be much higher than health and fitness capital investments. We are seeing many progressive schools attach a health and wellness stipend to the institution’s tuition in order to supplement mental health services.

The question of what higher education should do to address student mental health issues has both moral and business implications. It is clear that we are in the midst of a perfect storm – the unfortunate, consistent decline in teenage mental health; more concerned and anxious parents seeking mental health supports for their college-bound kids; and heightened competition between schools for enrollments. The answer is to cost-effectively complement existing mental health resources with new technology-driven solutions to better navigate this challenging and complex territory. In short, encourage your institution to pursue innovation and invest in immediate, readily available solutions that are truly supportive of your student body’s mental health.


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