By: Heather Ward, Special Assistant, Office of Post-Secondary Education
IIf you need help with a suicide or mental health crisis, or are worried about someone else, please call or text 988 or visit the National Suicide Prevention chat Lifeline to connect with a trained crisis counsellor.
As U.S. Department of Education officials travel the country visiting institutions of higher learning and talking with students, a constant theme is mental health and the growing crisis facing our nation. In conversations, the Department has heard from students about the loss of peers through suicide and the effect these tragedies have had on them personally.
Young adults are particularly vulnerable. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young adults aged 18 to 24. In a 2021 survey by the Healthy Minds Network, 13% of college students admitted to having had suicidal thoughts in the past year, with 5% having a plan and 1% an attempt. One of the few positive trends in mental health is the reduction in stigma towards help-seeking and treatment. In this 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 is clear that students were struggling long before the pandemic strikes. Students are ready to ask for help – how will we respond?
The Department is committed to addressing this crisis. In May 2022, the Department released guidance encouraging the use of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) to invest in mental health supports for students, faculty, and staff. These funds should be a down payment on long-term investments. Already, institutions across the country are using their HEERF grants for mental health supports.
Foothills-De Anza Community College used funds from the HEERF American Rescue Plan to create a Mental Wellness Ambassador program to promote mental health services, reduce the stigma around mental disorders, build community and to foster an inclusive and non-judgmental campus culture.
Northern Arizona University has invested $300,000 in HEERF Institutional Funds to expand in-person and virtual mental health counseling services.
It is essential that colleges and universities are active and equal partners with us in this work by investing resources in the mental health of their students through actions including, but not limited to, in-person counseling. , teletherapy, wellness activities, and supports for basic needs among many evidence-based best practices. The partnership between the Ministry and institutions is essential, as the government cannot implement these transformational practices without the support of community leaders and campuses across the country.
But HEERF isn’t the only source of federal dollars that colleges and universities can use to improve mental health services. Institutions can combine their HEERF grants with other federal funding to provide on-campus supports. Basic needs, such as housing security and food security, play a role in student mental health. The Department offers a basic needs grant and the Childcare Access Means Parents In School (CCAMPIS) grant focuses specifically on access to child care. Lack of basic needs is a major contributing factor to poor mental health. Students cannot be expected to succeed in the classroom if they spend more time wondering 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 for student parents’ young children to learn and grow can have a positive impact on a student’s mental health. Meeting basic needs will not solve all mental health issues, but we owe it to our students to remove these barriers to success.
Other government agencies are also taking bold steps as part of the Biden-Harris administration’s whole-of-government approach to scale up services and improve support for mental health and wellbeing. In July 2022, the Department of Health and Human Services launched the 988 Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Anyone, including any student, who is in crisis can simply text or call 988 to reach a trained counsellor. Transitioning to the 988 lifeline is an important step in providing people with an access point to the support and care they need. In the week following the launch of 988, there was a 45% increase in contacts. And 988 Lifeline advisors answered 23,000 more calls, texts and chats than the previous week. These essential services will help lay the foundation for future government-wide efforts to improve mental health services.
Over the coming months, the Department will continue to explore other ways to provide mental health resources to institutions, especially those serving our most needy students.
Now is the time to act. The students of our country are counting on us and we cannot let them down.