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Student body presidents on why mental health care needs to be supported now more than ever

Mantra Health reached out to a coalition of student body presidents (SBP) to get a better understanding of how mental health care on campus is viewed from the students’ perspective. The SBP’s recently published an open letter to state licensing boards gathering signatures from more than 150 universities across the country. We asked questions about why mental health support is a crucial part of a student’s journey in higher education, particularly now with the widespread impact of COVID-19.

Mantra: From the student experience, what do you think is the major barrier in accessing mental health resources and services on college and university campuses?

William Zhou (Brown University Student Body President 2019-2020): “As mentioned in our letter, one barrier to accessing mental health resources are licensing laws that bar mental health practitioners from providing out-of-state care. As a result, many students are now left to cope with severe stress without the assistance of essential mental healthcare practitioners. Counselors at universities across the country have transitioned their work to an online format, but are not able to offer their assistance to students living outside of their state due to licensing regulations. We have seen a similar issue arise when students return to their homes for university breaks, which are shorter and less anxiety-inducing than the state of affairs with which we are presently faced. 

To adapt to licensing laws during these breaks, state governments have recommended that mental health practitioners apply for temporary licenses in their patients' home states. However, the unforeseeable nature of COVID-19 has left mental healthcare practitioners with little to no time to apply for such licences to ensure that they can continue seeing their patients. This then poses an additional barrier and threat to students' wellbeing, which should be of top priority to ensure that they can remain focused and in good mental health.” 

Mantra: In your opinion, what is the impact of students not receiving needed mental health services?

Grace Wickerson (Rice University Student Body President, 2019-2020):  “A national study done by RISE found that 75% of college students have had increased anxiety, depression, or stress due to disruptions to their education. On my own campus I’ve seen this first hand, with mass calls from students for increased mental health support especially since their University is their main mental health provider.”

Mantra: How do you envision the path towards improving mental health resources across college and university campuses, and what exactly are the student needs at this time?

WZ: “We believe that the path forward involves state medical boards mandating the suspension of interstate regulations on counseling services so that those who are licensed and in good standing in any state can practice without civil or criminal penalty. We also believe that the telemental health practitioner definition should include any professional, paraprofessional, or licensed behavioral health staff who deliver qualified services via telemental health. Fortunately, many state boards now offer temporary licenses to help support the increased mental health need and we hope to see more follow suit.” 

Mantra: How do you see telemental health services playing a role in helping address barriers around getting help?

Ranen Miao (Washington University in St. Louis, Student Body President 2020-2021): “Amidst social distancing measures, financial and academic stressors, and anxiety induced by COVID-19, we need to support students while they adjust to online classes and transition home.”

WZ: “As mentioned in the letter, the expansion of telehealth can play a role in supporting students in getting help. Its expansion across state lines is necessary when considering the influx of mental illnesses due to the social isolation mandated by many state governments. While this practice is necessary to flatten the curve, it has also imposed severe health consequences for people who are now cut off from their social circles and support systems.” 

Mantra: If you could relay one message to the Vice President of Student Affairs at your school related to improving mental health services on campus, what would that be?

WZ: “COVID has had a significant impact on student life. For students unaccustomed to living at home, returning to their families may elicit stress in many forms, including complex family dynamics, financial strains and food and housing insecurity among others. And for a number of obvious reasons, some students may be placed in a position or situation where they must take care of themselves or loved ones who cannot care for themselves (like younger siblings). It’s incredibly important that students continue to have access to support systems remotely as without them, these challenges can be exacerbated.” 

How would you rate the importance of mental health support for students in this new normal as opposed to prior to Covid, from much less important - much more important?

WZ: Much more important