By: Heather Ward, Special Assistant, Office of Post-Secondary Education
IIf you need help with suicide or a mental health crisis, or are concerned about someone else, please call or text 988 or visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline chat to connect with a trained crisis counselor.
While U.S. Department of Education officials have traveled across the country visiting colleges and speaking with students, a constant theme is mental health and the growing crisis our nation is facing. In conversations, the department has heard from students about the loss of their peers to suicide and the impact that tragedy has had on them personally.
Young adults are particularly at risk. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young adults aged 18 to 24. In a 2021 Healthy Minds Network survey, 13% of college students admitted to having had suicidal thoughts in the past year, with 5% having a plan and 1% trying. One of the few positive trends in mental health is the decrease in stigma towards seeking help and seeking treatment. In the same 2021 survey, stigma decreased by 18% between 2007 and 2017. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly exacerbated the growing mental health crisis, but it’s clear that students were struggling long before the pandemic hit. Students Are Ready to Ask for Help – How Will We Respond?
The department is determined to manage this crisis. In May 2022, the Department issued guidance encouraging the use of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) to invest in mental health support for students, faculty and staff. These funds should be a down payment on long-term investments. Already, institutions across the country have used their HEERF grants to support mental health.
Foothills-De Anza Community College used HEERF American Rescue Plan funds to create a Mental Wellness Ambassador program that aims to advance mental health services, reduce the stigma of mental disorders, create community, and create an inclusive and non promote judgmental campus culture.
Northern Arizona University invested $300,000 in institutional HEERF funding to expand both in-person and virtual mental health counseling services.
It is vital that colleges and universities are active, equal partners with us in this work, investing resources in the mental health of their students, including through interventions such as face-to-face counseling, teletherapy, wellness activities, and basic needs support among many existing ones evidence-based best practices. The partnership between the department and institutions is critical as the government cannot implement these transformational practices without the support of community and college leaders across the country.
But HEERF isn’t the only source of government dollars that colleges and universities can use to improve mental health care. Institutions may combine their HEERF grants with other federal funds to provide on-campus support. Basic needs such as housing security and food security play a role in students’ mental health. The Department offers a Basic Needs Grant and the Child Care Grant Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS), which focuses specifically on access to child care. A lack of basic needs is a major contributor to poor mental health. Students cannot be expected to succeed in the classroom when they are more concerned about where they will sleep or where their next meal will come from. Alleviating unnecessary stressors such as food and housing insecurity or ensuring a safe place to study and grow for young children of student parents can have a positive impact on a student’s mental health. Meeting basic needs will not solve all mental health problems, but we owe it to our students to remove these barriers to success.
Other government agencies are also taking bold action as part of the Biden-Harris administration’s overall governance approach to expand services and improve support for mental health and well-being. In July 2022, the Department of Health and Human Services launched Lifeline 988 on suicide prevention. Anyone, including any student, in a crisis can simply text or call 988 to reach a trained counselor. The transition to the 988 Lifeline is an important step forward in providing people with an access point to the support and care they need. In the week after 988 launched, contacts increased by 45%. And 988 Lifeline consultants answered 23,000 more calls, texts and chats than the week before. These essential services will help lay the foundation for future government-wide efforts to improve mental health services.
In the coming months, the department will explore additional ways to provide mental health resources to institutions, particularly those that serve our most underfunded students.
Now is the time to act. Our country’s students are counting on us and we cannot disappoint them.