Governor Phil Murphy recently announced $16 million in grants aimed at supporting mental health for higher education students across the state of New Jersey. This investment is a critical step towards addressing the issue of mental health in young adults, but how this money will be allocated – and what happens after it’s spent – will be critical in determining student outcomes, institution success, and, ultimately, benefits to taxpayers.
Mental health issues increasingly affect millions of college students nationwide, and New Jersey is no different. It’s setting off alarms inside the offices of school presidents and senior leaders. About 70 percent of college students in the state said their stress and anxiety increased as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, including 76 percent of Hispanic, Black, American Indian, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students, according to a survey by the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education. In an unfortunate coincidence, 76 percent of students surveyed by Gallup-Lumina cited emotional stress as the reason they were considering stopping their degree programs, long supported by academic findings around mental health disorders leading to negative educational outcomes. All of this occurred with the backdrop that from 2017-2021, New Jersey higher education institutes experienced a nine percent decrease in enrollment. If schools fail to stem student mental health concerns, enrollment numbers will continue to drop.
Zooming out, investing in mental health is beneficial not only to students, but also to higher education institutions themselves. When students have access to high quality mental and emotional health services through their university system, they are more likely to stay in school and graduate, increasing their lifetime earnings. Reducing dropout saves lost tuition revenue, boosting job retention and enabling job creation in New Jersey. In fact, a study led by economist Dr. Daniel Eisenberg and shared in a Healthy Minds Network report demonstrates that New Jersey will see its investments in mental health yield $30 million in retained tuition at its higher education institutions and up to $60 million in increased future earnings of the students who graduate, boosting future tax revenues.
The majority of the grant money – $15 million out of the available $16 million – will be distributed to institutions to create partnerships with organizations who help institutions expand access to mental health services to students. With this much needed investment in social infrastructure, countless companies will come knocking that promise to provide much needed mental health services for the university and college students of New Jersey. Yet many of these companies simply repurpose service lines from bigger healthcare companies or will be a brand of telehealth company that cuts corners through their treatment model while promising “unlimited” therapy. Buyer beware.
In reality, these groups are not properly equipped to tailor treatment for the unique experiences of college students or historically marginalized student populations, don’t collaborate with critical on-campus resources such as health and counseling centers, and shortchange students on length of treatment in session. Choosing a partner like this is the equivalent of buying snake oil instead of going to your cardiologist for chest pain.
Luckily, there are a few options for higher education institutions and their students when forming these partnerships. Among the qualities that schools should look for in prospective partners include proven integration into on-campus resources, a provider group specialized in working with emerging adults, and a company focused on the success of higher education constituents. These were the principles we founded Mantra Health with and put into practice with institutions across the country, from Penn State to Miami Dade College to New Jersey Institute of Technology. As a result, students in clinical care with Mantra reported a 40 percent lower likelihood of dropout due to mental health challenges after enrolling in therapy. Students in treatment over six sessions experience a reduction in dropout risk twice as improved as those just starting.
The state of New Jersey is leading the way in making a long term investment into its students, schools, and the state itself, but it cannot stop here if we want to set our future generations and communities up for success. Investing in our students' mental health today is an investment that will yield positive benefits across society and our economy for decades to come.