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How Improving Mental Health Services at College Helps Increase Graduation Rates

The benefits of tackling mental health issues on college campuses aren’t just for students.  A RAND Corporation study found that institutions and communities can also see long term financial benefits of treating these issues.

The study looked at colleges and universities in California between 2013 and 2015 to determine how many more students were being helped with $8.7 million in yearly funding for mental health services from the CalMHSA program.  According to a brief of the study, “Overall, RAND estimates that 13.2% more students received care and 329 more students will graduate as the result of CalMHSA each year. Using an estimate from the Federal Reserve of San Francisco, RAND projected that the increase in graduates will also produce $56 million in benefits to the community.” That projected $56 million comes from the increase in expected lifetime earnings for additional college graduates.

Campus mental health has been in the news frequently in recent months, as colleges report more and more students struggling with issues like depression and anxiety.  The RAND research is helpful in showing the financial side of these services – addressing mental health issues costs money, but ignoring them is bad for students and the bottom line.

A 2011-12 survey of college counseling center directors found that 95% of them were concerned with the increasing psychiatric needs of students.  While some schools are scrambling to allocate resources, others have kept on top of the trend and show that success is possible.

The National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) reported the findings of more than 750 student responses.  Their report, College Students Speak, shines a light on what mental health problems look like up close, as well as providing tips on how schools can help.  According to the report, “An overwhelming majority of survey respondents who said they are no longer in college (attendance stopped within the past five years) are not attending college because of a mental health related reason.”  Graduation rates are important for a number of reasons – they are a crucial part of how colleges are measured, and students who leave college without earning a degree face outside challenges.  California’s experiment shows that additional funds can address both these concerns.

NAMI recommendations for institutions range from the simple, like better marketing for counseling centers, to more fundamental shifts, like how financial aid is handled for students dealing with mental health issues.  For example, one semester of bad grades as a result of mental health issues can mean the end of scholarships, exacerbating anxiety and depression even further.

73% of students who participated in College Students Speak dealt with a mental health crisis while enrolled in college. The stress of living alone for the first time, as well as the academic and financial pressures of college, can make it easy for mental issues to appear. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America provides tips on their website specifically for college students.  Learning coping strategies like volunteering, practicing perspective, taking care of your physical health and seeking out campus resources are some of the best ways students can manage these challenges.

ELIANA OSBORN Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.