The 4 key ways colleges can offer mental health help to students

Providing wraparound services, resources and support is essential to maintaining a healthy and happier campus.
By: | November 5, 2021
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In a few days, the University of North Carolina is hosting a summit that will give its community a chance to grieve together and find solutions to the mental crisis that has impacted millions of students in higher education. Two of them took their lives on the Chapel Hill campus in separate suicides last month.

Those tragedies and two more that hit Saint Louis University in September are horrible reminders of how dire this epidemic has become. A recent stroll across Bucknell University’s campus provided many more markers—hundreds of backpacks with stories attached to them from those who knew someone who had taken their lives.

A new report from TimelyMD, a telehealth platform that has been working with colleges to help students get care quickly and effectively during the pandemic, shows that mental health visits during the past three months have almost quadrupled. Students are fighting anxiety, depression and stress, and yes, contemplating suicide more often.

“This national mental health crisis affects all of us, and we cannot solve it with the efforts of one person, or one group, alone,” North Carolina Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz wrote in a statement to his community in announcing the summit.

So on. Nov. 15, in a virtual meeting Guskiewicz and other administrators at UNC are bringing in thought leaders to talk about “campus culture, crisis services and prevention” with students, staff and faculty.

Four strategies to help students

An open forum is one of the ways colleges and universities can tackle the problem, showing transparency and allowing populations to share their stories, their pain and their ideas about how they can move forward. “We will examine the national mental health crisis, listen to the experiences of students and parents and talk about next steps for our campus,” Guskiewicz said. “UNC is  encouraging engagement and dialogue with those thought leaders.”

The second is giving students an occasional wellness day, which UNC did after the two incidents shook the Chapel Hill community in mid-October. The university not only gave students the day off from classes but provided high levels of support through group and private session counseling in several spots on campus while offering myriad resources for peer-to-peer support and wellness.

Saint Louis University did the same after the tragedies hit there near the beginning of the fall semester. Those incidents were particularly difficult, one coming in public view, and both happening just after Suicide Prevention Week.

While students expressed the need for more support, the third key element—proactive and caring messaging—was evident from leadership at SLU. Debra Rudder Lohe, Interim Vice President for Student Development, wrote this to the community:

“While we have all been focused on COVID-19 prevention and your physical health and safety, I also know your mental health and safety are even more important. And that the restrictions we are living with create even bigger challenges to mental health and well-being. Suicide has touched our SLU community before. Some of you have lost people you love to suicide. Some of you may be struggling with thoughts of suicide right now. If you need support, please ask for it. You can talk to a friend, your RA, a staff or faculty member. Asking for help is a sign of strength. … I hope you know how precious you are to me and to literally every member of this community. I hope you know we see you. We love you. And we are here for you.”

The fourth way, and perhaps the most critical to help students during the mental health crisis, is giving them resources, especially easy access to care 24/7 throughout the year. TimelyMD, which has partnered with more than 130 universities including Johns Hopkins and Georgetown, is one of the companies that provides telehealth and access to licensed care specialists around the clock. As counseling centers on campus are often overwhelmed, that kind of service is a necessity for students who are experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety, can’t wait for appointments or are concerned about face-to-face interaction. Officials at TimelyMD noted that 40% of the visits this fall have occurred after regular business hours.