Biden, Dems make 2 big pitches to higher ed leaders to tackle mental health

The Administration wants colleges to more robustly use HEERF funds, while two senators draft Awareness Act.
By: | May 20, 2022
Adobe Stock

Wanting to ensure that students have the care and access they need to services, the Biden Administration and two Democrat leaders are pressing colleges and universities to bolster efforts to address the mental health crisis.

On Thursday, the Department of Education issued new guidance to help institutions better utilize their Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF) to provide resources and support to those in need. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges have been given $76 billion through the American Rescue Plan to specifically address the mental health epidemic, which the American Council on Education said now afflicts 75% of all college students.

“If there is one thing I’ve heard while speaking with college students throughout the nation, it’s been the need for greater mental health supports on campus,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “We must make sure our colleges and universities have the tools and resources to help students, faculty, and staff heal from the grief, trauma, and anxiety they endured amid the pandemic.”

In addition, and in recognition of the growing opioid crisis affecting young Americans, Congressmen Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA) introduced legislation called the Mental Health Awareness Act (H.R. 7780) that provides sweeping guidance on the delivery of services and support for individuals but specifically aims to increase transparency required by colleges on students with disabilities.

“Without adequate access to mental health services and protections, far too many children, students, workers, and families are grappling with trauma and heightened mental health needs on their own,” said Scott, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. “We cannot protect our nation’s health or help communities recover if we do not strengthen our mental health care system.”


More from UB: How one university made wellness a presidential-level priority


In higher education alone, the mental health crisis is off the charts. Emotional stress, now the No. 1 problem facing students, has increased 40% since the pandemic started, according to polling data from Gallup and the Lumina Foundation. Suicidal ideations, while down, are still at “unacceptable” levels at 15% to 25% of students, according to Mantra Health and Didi Hirsch. Although colleges and universities have extended their efforts to address mental health, barriers still exist in students being able to gain 24/7 access to care, to getting coverage and in simply knowing that help is available.

Many colleges, however, have used HEERF funds to create, extend and promote their available resources and care to students:

Those are just a few of the many examples highlighted by the Administration, with more information available in the released guidance, which comes during Mental Health Awareness Month.

Fittingly, it also coincides with the Mental Health Awareness Act pitched by the two senators. Though much of it focuses on help for K-12 students—from creating “a pipeline of school-based mental health services providers and increasing the number of mental health professionals serving in high-need schools” to requiring the Department of Health and Human Services to forge early interventions that can improve wellness in kids—there is one notable inclusion that addresses higher education.

Specifically, the legislation would require institutions to provide more transparency on mental health services when it comes to accommodations for students who have a disability. Title V of their Mental Health Awareness Act includes the Respond, Innovate, Succeed, and Empower (RISE) Act, which states that students who provide documentation of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), a 504 plan or anything similar must be given access to accommodations.

Scott and DeSaulnier’s proposal reminds institutions that they must be upfront—on their websites and in orientations—that these services are available to those who have disabilities. The RISE Act also calls for $2 million in funding per year over five years to the National Center for Information and Technical Support for Postsecondary Students with Disabilities (NCIPSD), which offers guidance on assisting those students from K-12 through higher education. Institutions also must comply with requirements for reporting data on individuals with disabilities to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). That also must include the number of credentials that they achieve.