How Universities Are Working to Provide Comprehensive Care for Higher Ed Students’ Mental Health

Mental health in higher education can lead to liability risk for institutions if it remains unaddressed. But there is buy-in to do more for students from all stakeholders, including insurance.
By: | April 21, 2023

Mental health is not an inherently new topic, though when looked at through a generational lens, it’s something that many “young folk” are being more open and honest about.  

That could be because 9 out of 10 Gen Zers with diagnosed mental health conditions struggle with anxiety, and nearly 8 out of 10 (78%) are battling depression, per one study. Or it may be that “Americans 18 to 24 years old report high rates of mental-health challenges, impediments to effective work, and worries about the future,” as McKinsey noted last fall. 

Whatever the drive to be open about mental health, it’s making waves across all industries and walks of life from integration into the workers’ compensation space to a commitment from companies to address mental health through DEI initiatives. 

In the higher education realm, mental health is a hot topic.  

Student debt and family financials, social media, societal inequality, climate change, guns in schools, safety in general, global instability — there’s a lot to consider when it comes to stressors affecting college-age students.  

Not to mention school pressures themselves, from school workload, managing schedules for the first time on their own, to specific expectations for different majors. 

“These are all pressures that affect students differently,” said Justin Kollinger, senior risk management consultant, United Educators. “Some of the students feel none as stressors and others may feel some or all of them.” 

The onset of the pandemic further exacerbated how universities and colleges have had to think about student mental health. 

“It really escalated with COVID,” added Elizabeth Marks, senior strategy consultant at Academic HealthPlans, Risk Strategies’ student health practice. “COVID affected college students’ mental health tremendously, more than adults. It created a huge amount of stress. Demand for access rose just as access couldn’t keep up.” 

Telehealth was an option for some, but at the start, it was simply an emerging aid that didn’t have the same takeoff as it did in general health care. 

All that, coupled with a lack of practicing physicians and uncertainty, gave way to this need for better quality, better access to care for all students. 

The Climate Around Mental Health 

The good news: Interest is growing, and higher education decision makers want to do more for students when it comes to mental health aid. 

A 2021 American Council of Education Pulse Point survey found that “for the seventh time since April 2020, ‘mental health of students’ was the pressing issue cited most frequently by presidents,” — selected by more than two-thirds of those surveyed (68%).  

Risk Strategies’ second annual Student Health Plan Benchmarking survey also found that 89% of university and college respondents are prioritizing mental health coverage for students. 

“Risk management is very concerned about student mental health. But it takes a number of different stakeholders to work together and get involved,” Marks explained. 

“[The pandemic] heightened their awareness that they have to do something to impact student mental health. It’s become a strategic risk for them, because they need healthy students to be able to educate them, to achieve the mission of their institution,” said Kollinger. 

What it comes down to is how universities and colleges are going about providing care while on — and even off — campus. 

Student Health Plans Are Just the Start 

One way universities and colleges actively address mental health on campus is through their student health plans. It’s common practice for universities and colleges to integrate all health and wellness services into one platform.  

Mental health does fall under that umbrella. 

And so, many have looked at the health care options and services offered to students and have taken the next steps to create a more holistic approach. That typically includes access to on-site counselors, as well as nutritionists, health care services, psychiatrists, 24/7 care, digital health care tools like internet-based cognitive behavior health and stress/meditation apps. 

“It’s a holistic program that enables the student different access points for health services,” Marks explained. 

However, having the resources and getting students to utilize them are two very different things. The Risk Strategies team’s 2022 survey found in many student health programs that offer a wide range of telehealth services, there is still a low utilization of the plan. 

“That’s nothing new. With any program, the question of how to communicate its benefits to the student body tends to come up. And then, the other important aspect is looking at the outcomes and utilization of the programs themselves,” said Marks. 

Kollinger also noted that even with the best of intentions, student health plan services can fall a little short if not all elements are aligned. 

“Counselors aren’t always there. There’s a tight supply and a shortage of counselors in general, so we’re starting to see other adaptations,” he said. 

Communication, Implementation, Partnership 

In order to affect change and bring needed mental health resources to campus effectively, Marks and Kollinger offered several examples on how higher ed can broaden their reach. 

For starters, working on communicating existing offerings is a no-brainer. Having a student health program equipped with holistic services is great, but the challenge lies in communications around the services provided.  

“Some institutions have turned to wellness apps to fill in some of those gaps,” Kollinger said. Such apps give students access to social learning, access to new friends, general wellness and more. 

A big communication enabler has come in the form of training administrators, faculty and staff on program offerings. This is so that “all stakeholders involved at the school know services exist and can intervene and talk to students about programs,” Marks said. 

It’s also enabling faculty to spot a student in crisis. 

“One of the challenges faced before the pandemic was awareness and buy-in … by leadership but that’s changed. Mental health is embraced — but do we have the time, the energy, the resources, the people to implement the changes that we need to implement?” Kollinger said. 

Implementation is an area that requires additional strategy outside of communicating that these programs and offerings exist.  

The country’s current mental health crisis is tied into university enrollment. If more students in high school are deciding against going to college due to their mental health and/or the stressors a higher education price tag holds for them, enrollment will remain low. And low enrollment means less funds to allocate to the services needed to manage wellness programs — in addition to everything else.  

“Every dollar is being looked at,” Marks said. 

“During COVID, we saw that funds were available through Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund grants,” she explained. There was an emphasis on giving students access to mental health care because the pandemic caused a mental health crisis. “But those funds have been used up. So, universities are looking for other ways to finance and implement services.” 

Justin Kollinger, senior risk management consultant, United Educators

One way to help ease the financial burden is through partnerships. Kollinger has seen this through member institutions at UE “starting to work with outside partners to assess their overall ability to deliver student mental health services.” 

The JED Foundation, as one such partner, will work with institutions over the course of several years to assess where they are starting, what their students need and will offer an assessment to impact change. 

Partnerships with insurance can also go a long way toward getting students access to the care they need. Obviously, insurance and risk management plays a role in the creation and implementation of a student health plan. But there’s additional resources the industry can provide. 

“There is liability risk associated with mental health. We’ve seen a rapidly increasing severity of claims coming through related to mental health,” Kollinger said. “So there is a financial need for us to be involved.” 

Risk management and insurance does so by providing risk management resources to help develop behavioral and mental health intervention teams, provide guidance toward policies and procedures related to identifying resources available, implementing courses to help train faculty and staff, and more. 

“We want to advocate and support education. We can provide resources for medical leave policies, return-from-leave policies, all related to mental health,” he added. 

One-Size-Fits-All Rarely Works 

The groundwork is lain, and the seeds to prosper are sown.  

But when it comes to addressing mental health in higher education, all the resources in the world will not eliminate every stressor just at face value. 

That’s because one size so rarely fits all. 

A big takeaway from the Risk Strategies 2022 survey was that there needs to be different levels of care for each student type — but what does this mean? 

“It’s about looking at the program through different lenses and customizing solutions for each institution,” said Marks. 

“Different demographic groups experience mental stressors differently, too,” Kollinger added. “We can talk about college students with a broad stroke, but it’s important to recognize these different identities.”   

Risk & Insurance couldn’t agree more. Over the course of the next several months, our team will be taking a deeper dive into this topic, looking at college student mental health from several angles, including different demographics like LGBTQIA+ students, stressors related with high-demanding majors like engineering or health care, the impact of social media and more.  

“We’ve struggled with mental health for a long time in this country,” Kollinger said. “One really positive thing is that people are more willing to talk about it, particularly younger generations, and we are seeing progress and a more positive attitude towards mental health.” & 

Stay tuned through our Mental Health in Higher Education Series to read more about how mental health impacts different student demographics across a broad range of topics, like student athletics, social life, finances and more. 

Autumn Demberger is a freelance writer and can be reached at [email protected].

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