Breaking Down the Barriers to Care: How to Improve Access to Student Mental Health Services

College is a time of big life transitions for students who are juggling multiple different demands. In addition to managing their academic responsibilities, students are also dealing with relationship stressors, questions of identity, financial responsibilities, living away from home for the first time, among other factors.

These challenges and transitions make it all the more important that students get access to quality mental health care. Ironically, some of these challenges can create barriers for students to access the mental health care services they need.

Barriers to care are especially prevalent among marginalized student populations. International students, first-generation students, LGBTQ+ students, BIPOC students, students with disabilities, and students with intersectional identities may be more likely to face barriers to care and, at the same time, have a higher need for mental health services.

Common barriers faced by college students

When addressing student mental health, it’s important to recognize the many barriers preventing students from accessing mental health services. These are some of the most common ones:

  • Insurance and financial concerns - Nearly one in five students have reported that financial or insurance barriers prevent them from seeking care for mental health issues. The high cost of care or not having therapy covered fully by health insurance is often a concern for students.
  • Low socioeconomic status – When college students are battling food insecurity, financial strain, and other socioeconomic stressors, they may experience a higher need for mental healthcare services and increased barriers to accessing them.
  • Physical Access - Lack of reliable transportation is often a barrier for college students and it has risen during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Stigma - Mental health stigma still exists and is more prevalent among certain student populations, including male students, international students, students who are more religious, and students from lower socioeconomic status families. Student-athletes, students of color, and other students may also be hesitant to engage in help-seeking behaviors. They may be discouraged from seeking care or they may feel the available service offerings are not reflective of their need.
  • Scheduling conflicts - Many students juggle multiple commitments during the day, including classes, work, and extracurricular activities. Many campus counseling centers have limited staffing and availability and aren’t open in the evenings and on weekends. This can create substantial barriers for students who want to access the services but can’t get an appointment in a reasonable timeframe or at a time when they’re available.
  • Privacy concerns - Some students refrain from accessing mental health services because of concerns about their privacy. They might have concerns about sharing intimate, vulnerable details about themselves with a relative stranger, or might fear how their mental health information will be used at the college level.

How to improve access to mental health care 

College campuses can make mental health services more accessible for students. First, college campuses need to acknowledge the importance of mental health. Second, they need to recognize the barriers that prevent so many students from utilizing services. Third, they need to invest more into mental health offerings, so all students, regardless of background, ability, identity, and socioeconomic status, can access the same high quality of care. 

Here are some strategies for improving the mental health care access for your students.

Invest in telehealth services

Telehealth services can improve access to mental health care and are perceived positively by college students. When you add on telehealth services, you increase the number of clinicians available and thus reduce the burdens experienced by campus counseling centers. By incorporating therapy and psychiatry via telehealth into your range of services offerings, you give student-athletes, students who work, students with disabilities, and other students who prefer not to visit an in-person counseling center the opportunity to talk with a mental health professional on their own terms and within their own busy schedules.

Provide 24/7 behavioral health support

Mental health crises can occur at any time during the school year, which is why you need to offer students access to 24/7 crisis care. Many college counseling centers operate on a standard work schedule and while counselors may be willing to take after-office calls, it’s much harder to implement an emergency response plan without a support team in place. Providing 24/7 behavioral health support, which can be made available through texts and video chats, is essential to meeting the mental health needs of students. 

Extend therapy beyond office hours

College students all around the country are experiencing long wait times to get an appointment with a clinical provider. Extending provider availability to nights and weekends can help increase access to care, especially for students who work during the day, student-athletes who are busy practicing, and other students who can’t carve out time to visit the center during the typical 9-5 hours. However, many campus counseling centers are currently understaffed, and asking providers to work nights and weekends on top of their daytime hours is unreasonable. Colleges and universities should consider investing in a third-party provider, like Mantra Health, so existing counselors are supported and students are given greater availability.

Offer on-campus spaces for telehealth visits

The majority of students live in a parent or guardian’s home or in a campus residence hall with roommates. Finding a private space for telehealth visits can be challenging for college students. They may be concerned that someone could overhear their session or they might feel uncomfortable discussing sensitive topics in public spaces. This is why colleges and universities should offer private spaces on campus for students to take telehealth visits. This widens access, while protecting student privacy.

Diversify your care offerings

Supporting student mental health goes beyond providing individual therapy. In order to provide the most comprehensive care, you must diversify your care offerings. This could include psychiatric care, group therapy, coaching, peer support, and other mental health services. Colleges and universities can also work to diversify their provider group. Students from traditionally disenfranchised groups are widely underserved by campus counseling centers. Campuses can tackle this issue by training existing providers in culture competency and diversifying their providers by including BIPOC providers, providers who specialize in LGBTQ+ mental health care, and those who have experience working with students with disabilities, international students, students with children, among other populations.

About Mantra

At Mantra Health, our mission is to increase access to mental health services for college students by expanding the offerings of campus counseling centers. We partner with colleges and universities to provide therapy, psychiatry, and 24/7 behavioral health services, which inevitably helps to increase access to life-saving mental health care.

Learn more about our offerings here