Regents establish working group on student mental health

The Board of Regents has appointed a special working group focused on student mental health at USHE institutions. The committee will be lead by Regents Pat Jones, Ty Aller, Jesselie Anderson, Mark Stoddard, and Nina Barnes. This action was part of a discussion facilitated by two Vice-Presidents of Student Affairs with the Board and USHE Presidents on student mental health at the Board of Regents meeting held on November 18 at Utah Valley University.

The discussion highlighted what USHE institutions are currently doing to mitigate the fast-growing issue of student mental health on college campuses. Barb Snyder, from the University of Utah emphasized, “This isn’t just a social issue for students, this is an issue that is impacting graduation rates.” Jared Tippets, from Southern Utah University provided important context, “While our campuses may see some of the immediate signs related to student mental health, this is more than a higher education issue. We need to work closely with our partners in K-12, the community, and healthcare providers to address this issue.”

A large longitudinal study by the University of Michigan and Harvard Medical School in 2009 found that mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and other conditions are significant predictors of a lower GPA and a higher probability of dropping out of college. In 2014, the American College Health Association found more than 50% of U.S. college students had felt “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous 12 months.

The need for mental health services has been increasing nationwide, including at USHE institutions. In 2013, almost all the college mental health directors surveyed by the National College Counseling Association said they’d seen a recent increase in students with serious psychological problems at their institutions. As student enrollments have increased by about 5% nationally in the past 5 years, the number of students seeking counseling services has grown over 30%.

Despite the significant challenges, USHE institutions have been applying a variety of creative solutions to help mitigate the needs:

  • Counseling groups to help large numbers of students in a shorter timeframe.
  • Graduate interns to augment supply of trained professionals available to meet with students on campus.
  • Contracting with Telemed services to access trained mental health professionals when needed;
  • Crisis triage – New hiring of staff to only work with crisis cases to hopefully keep them from escalating, as well as contracting with online “self-help” and 24-hour crisis hotlines to deal with less severe issues.
  • Training and support of faculty and staff to help identify mental illness symptoms and refer students (e.g., SUU – “Let’s Talk” and the “Care and Support Team”)
  • Partnerships with community organizations and agencies.

The Utah Student Association, comprised of the student body presidents of Utah’s colleges and universities, has identified student mental health as its top policy priority for the past two years. The association’s focus has been on increasing access to therapists on campus, strengthening student support networks, and emphasizing preventative care. Student organizations have held dozens of campus events to increase awareness and advocacy, including social media campaigns and a statewide video:

Birch Eve, Student Body President at Utah Valley University and Chair of the Student Association described the personal heartache of sending letters on behalf of the student body to the families of students who have committed suicide. He said he is “hopeful that a focus on this by the Regents will help bring visibility” and additional resources to the issue.

The challenges of providing adequate student mental health services are exacerbated by a severe shortage of trained professionals in the field. survey released by the University of Wisconsin in March 2016 found only 12% of U.S. community colleges have a psychiatrist or other licensed provider on hand to help students in need of mental-health services.

Utah is no exception – according to Southern Utah University, there are no practicing psychiatrists between Utah County and St. George, Utah. A new report on the mental health profession in Utah by the Utah Medical Education Council released in June 2016, highlights the shortage of professionals is so severe that the US Department of Health has identified every county in Utah as a Mental Health Provider Shortage Area (HPSA) The report projects that Utah’s workforce of mental health professionals would need to more than double by the year 2030 to meet the projected need in the state.

A Joint Education Commission sponsored by the Utah Legislature in September also highlighted the issue of mental health in education – both in K-12 and higher education. All eight USHE institutions recognize mental health as one of the top student issues. Higher education and student leaders plan to work with legislators in the 2017 Legislative Session to expand the service of the state’s K-12 student tip line application to college students.