The national conversation on mental health continues. The culture of support offered at colleges is shifting, too.
“It’s not just the counseling area anymore,” said Timeka Rashid, Baldwin Wallace University’s vice president for student affairs.
The climate and resources surrounding mental health vary among campuses. Many, though, now offer things like workshops, group sessions and mindfulness experiences, in addition to counseling sessions with licensed professionals.
During Rashid’s two decades working at colleges across Ohio, she noticed that institutions’ awareness of and reliance on data on this front have grown. For example, a college may assess itself and find there are only three counselors available for 6,500 residential students. That’s a disproportionate ratio.
“The data assessment has changed the narrative,” she said. “It’s forced us to tell a story. Stories that you can’t ignore.”
Another data point? A string of national surveys found college presidents repeatedly report students’ mental health as their top concern. More campuses are expanding mental health support and services as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
Higher ed job boards list openings for counselors, as well as “wellness directors” and “student wellness advocates.” The State University of New York recently announced plans to put $24 million toward staff and resources.
Here in Ohio, public and private colleges got $13.5 million in total relief funding from the state specifically for those efforts. Schools have until the end of this upcoming academic year to spend it.
Case Western Reserve University delegated part of its funding toward the work of the campus’ multicultural specialist psychologist. The University of Mount Union used some of its share to add more master’s-level counseling interns and offered science-based sound therapy experiences. Youngstown State University upped staff, too.
The investments are continuing. Baldwin Wallace is beginning The JED Foundation (JED)’s Campus Fundamentals program. It’s funded by both institutional money and a scholarship from Morgan Stanley. CWRU will keep supporting an app called TimelyMD that provides around-the-clock virtual mental health support.
Yet at Cleveland State University, a request for proposals to potentially outsource the campus’ counseling center earlier this year received pushback from community members, according to the student news publication The Cauldron.
“We withdrew the RFP this spring so our team could focus all of its efforts on responding to the pandemic,” a university spokesman told Crain’s. “There are no immediate plans to issue a new RFP.”
Fatemah Abed goes to school there. The new semester will mark the third that’s been impacted by the pandemic for the 19-year-old.
She graduated high school in 2020. The fall brought a CSU semester that was mainly online. Year two begins as the Delta variant threatens to upend what was going to be a return to a more traditional college experience.
“I feel like it’s just all new to me,” she said. “I feel like a freshman and a sophomore.”
It seemed like a lot of professors, she said, assigned more work in an attempt to compensate for not being in-person. Email reminders would occasionally float into her inbox from the university: Hey, take a break! Go outside! Get a snack!
But there didn’t seem to be time for any of that. She felt burnt out.
“We would finish one homework assignment, and it’s time to study for a quiz, [then] there’s another quiz the next day,” she said.
Students at Ohio State University reported a 31% increase in burnout from August 2020 to April 2021, bringing the rate to 71% in the spring. Anxiety and depression also rose during that time frame, per a survey released last month.
Two-thirds of students who are no longer in college leave due to a mental health issue, according to OSU’s chief wellness officer Bernadette Melnyk. Institutions across the country saw huge enrollment drops last fall.
“We would not send divers into a deep ocean without an oxygen tank,” Melynk said in a release. “How can we send our students throughout life without giving them the resiliency, cognitive-behavioral skills and coping mechanisms that we know are protective against mental health disorders and chronic disease?”
John Dunkle with JED calls this time a “Gordian knot” for higher education administrators. There’s the pandemic, its disproportionate impact on people of color, the country’s reckoning on race, mental health concerns. It’s all intertwined.
“If you address one, you have to address all levels,” he said. “It’s really important to campuses, especially as classes resume in the fall, to really start to learn about and strategically think about trauma.”
Cuyahoga Community College uses a trauma-informed approach, according to assistant dean of counseling Kate Vodicka. What’s happening in students’ lives outside of the classroom can impact what happens in it.
Last year brought an increase of anxiety and depression. Her team noted something else when talking with students, too.
“Grief is what the counselors keep reporting back to me,” she said. “They’re like, ‘We have to do more on that idea of loss and people grieving just their sense of normal.’ “
Yet students may have a hesitancy to seek help. It can be due to stigma or previous experiences with the system. Going to see a counselor may seem formal or scary, she said. The campus did recently add more part-time counselors, roles Vodicka said were hard to fill because the demand for mental health professionals is so high right now.
Tri-C works to meet students where they are, including when they hosted group conversations after the murder of George Floyd last year. Vodicka said those opened the door for more dialogue on mental health and wellness. But she knows they’re still missing connecting with everyone who needs help.
“The students that we are coming across, that are reaching out to us, being involved in these discussions, have really needed that support,” Vodicka said.
The connections David Hughley III has made during his time at Youngstown State, including through YSU’s Black Student Union, are vital. A mentor assigned through a business college program gives him a boost, too.
“Having a sort-of guardian angel in your corner really helps,” the 19-year-old said.
Mental health comes up in talks with his friends, including discussing the importance of Olympian Simone Biles’ recent moves to prioritize her mental health. He has a few plans for prioritizing his own mental well-being this semester. The list includes naps and walks.
“Just do something that really helps you, makes you feel better, and makes you feel like you can breathe,” Hughley said.