The CARES Act and University Mental Health

College Students Need Quality Mental Health Care Now More Than Ever

On campuses across the country, the need for accessible, high-quality mental health services is rising. Grace Wickerson (Rice University Student Body President, 2019-2020) told Mantra, “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.” 

Heightened demand for mental health services should be met with increased access to services. Yet, according to a recent Healthy Minds Network Study, 60% of students indicate that the coronavirus pandemic has made access to mental health care more challenging. Although demand for mental health services is rising, many college students are not visiting counseling centers to have their needs met. The Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) reports that the average number of students seeking treatment from college counseling centers declined significantly during the pandemic.  

Emergency Relief Funding for Mental Health Care

One of the greatest obstacles to improving mental health services on campus is budgetary constraints. Thankfully, the latest COVID-19 relief bill allocating $40 billion in funding for colleges and universities includes funds targeted for mental health care. 

The federal government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act established the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) model in March of 2020: at least 50% of funds must be allocated to student grants, while the remaining 50% can be spent on institutional costs arising due to the coronavirus pandemic. The American Rescue Plan (ARP), signed into law on March 11, 2021, builds upon the initiatives in the CARES Act by further funding the HEERF. 

The Department of Education has not yet released information about whether institutions that received CARES Act funding must take additional steps to secure ARP funds. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators will update their reference page as more information becomes available.

One of the “emergency costs” that the institutional portion of HEERF can be allocated towards is mental health care. Colleges and universities that received funding through the CARES Act and are waiting on ARP funding have resources to bolster mental health services on campus. Institutions of higher education now face the challenge of allocating funds to optimize student wellness. 

Higher Education Needs to Meet Growing Demand for Mental Health Services

Prioritizing quality mental health care poises colleges and universities for success. Students utilizing college counseling services report being more satisfied with their quality of life and academic performance

Not only do colleges with thriving wellness cultures and quality counseling have happier students, they also have higher retention rates. Struggling with mental health is the most common reason students drop out of college.  A Healthy Minds Network  study estimates that treating 100 depressed students in a school year can prevent 6 dropouts, saving colleges and universities an average of $240,000 in tuition costs. 

Unfortunately, colleges and universities lack the infrastructure to meet the diverse and extensive mental health care needs of their student bodies. In an Inside Higher Ed article, Kelly Davis, Director of Peer Advocacy Supports and Services for Mental Health America (MHA), characterizes the present challenges facing mental health care in higher education as “a larger version of the same problem we’ve seen on campus–people are struggling, we tell them to reach out for help, but we didn’t build the help.” 

A common challenge for college counseling centers is being under-staffed with resultant long appointment wait times. Luckily, necessity breeds invention: Shifting to telepsychiatry has convinced Dr. Davis that telehealth is “an effective way to provide the treatment that students need to thrive, without compromising outcomes.”

Benefits of Telehealth On Campus 

A substantial body of evidence finds telehealth to be equally as effective as in-person therapy in both levels of patient satisfaction and treatment efficacy. Dr. David Mohr, Director of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, who researches telepsychology and digital mental health, told the American Psychological Association, “What we’ve seen is that telehealth is essentially just as effective as face-to-face psychotherapy—and retention rates are higher.” 

Telehealth also has unique benefits for colleges, universities, and their students when incorporated into existing campus structures. According to Larry Moneta, Ed.D., former Vice President of Student Affairs at Duke University and longtime advocate for telehealth in higher education, “Even prior to the coronavirus crisis, the contemporary lives of college students–perpetually on the go, highly stressed and with little time to spare–showcased the need for telehealth as augmentation to the excellent health care provided through student health and counseling centers on our campuses.”

Here are three of the most impactful ways telehealth improves mental health care for college students: 

1. Higher conversion on long-term care referrals.

A major challenge for mental health care on campus is appointment attendance within the community after a referral from the counseling center. Especially for students already struggling with their mental health, the directive to seek care off campus can be daunting. Telehealth is advantageous in that it lends itself to collaboration between the university and external providers, augmenting counseling center services instead of trying to replace them.  

Increased appointment availability and ease of scheduling translate to better follow-through for students referred to telehealth. Mantra’s internal research indicates that more than 95% of referred students attend their first telepsychiatry appointment when effective telehealth services are in place. 

On-campus counseling offices that take advantage of a digital portal have the added benefit of supporting students in pursuing self-care on their own time. Dr. Nora Feldpausch, Staff Psychiatrist at Michigan State University, explains that one of many benefits of telehealth is that it “support[s] patient self management by offering modules or links to resources such as psychoeducational handouts, empirically supported self-help apps, and crisis intervention services.” 

2. More inclusive care for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students.

Utilizing a telehealth service designed by medical experts with college students in mind can enable more patient centric care. With access to more specialists, diverse therapists, and customizable self-care resources, students can feel supported by therapy tailored to their needs. 

Telehealth also promotes culturally competent care by connecting students with therapists who “look like them,” or therapists who understand unique challenges they may be facing. Especially for students of color and LGBTQ+ students, the ability to transcend geographical boundaries and gain access to therapists they feel comfortable with can be a game-changer. 

3. Appointment availability on nights and weekends.

Telehealth allows more students to receive quality mental health care by enabling scheduling of exponentially more appointments. While high-risk students are understandably prioritized by counseling centers with limited services, with telehealth, preventative care can be offered to any student who wants to proactively manage their mental health through telehealth.

Many students are unable to take advantage of traditional counseling center services, which operate during the same hours as classes. By providing access to nighttime and weekend appointments, telehealth accommodates students with busy schedules. Not only does this support individual students’ wellbeing, but it minimizes stigma by normalizing therapy for everyone. Effective telehealth can transform campus cultures into emotionally enriching environments in which mental health care is celebrated. 

Optimize Relief Funding for a Mentally Healthy Student Body

Funding alone does not ensure quality mental health care on campus. Transforming mental health services to be easily accessible and widely utilized by college students requires thoughtful new infrastructure that complements and strengthens the existing campus structures, processes, and goals. 

To learn more about how Mantra can expand telehealth services on your campus through your CARES Act funding, get in touch to speak with our partnerships team.