Revamping Higher Ed's Mental Health Policies

Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles may have moved society closer to being comfortable talking about mental health in young people. In spite of the tremendous amount of criticism they received, neither woman backed down in their insistence that they needed to take time off from their sports to focus on their own well-being.

And we may see many more 20-somethings doing the same as they return to in-person learning amid the pressures of a still-ravaging global pandemic, still-unresolved racial tensions that include government battles over what version of history can be taught in schools, another historic year for hurricanes and natural disasters, and the familial and external strains that exist even in years where the entire world is not upside down.

Kristelle AisakaKristelle Aisaka“The last year or two years has really magnified [all of these things], so schools really need to be intentional about recognizing those challenges that students are facing,” says Kristelle Aisaka, senior campus adviser and data lead for higher education at the JED Foundation. Prior to joining JED, Aisaka worked at Syracuse University as a health promotion specialist with a specific focus on mental health and wellness. 

“I think we know that whether it’s from things like Covid in the last year-and-a-half just being more stressful, or it’s also some of this increased visibility and de-stigmatization of mental health things … we’re seeing a lot more students who are self-advocates for more mental health services on campus,” Aisaka says. 

In some cases, students are formally looking to access therapy programs, but sometimes drop-in programs or check-ins from their favorite professors are more the type of help they’re ready to receive.

“I keep going back to [the idea] that school administrators need to lead with compassion. That has to be first and foremost when it comes to students this semester,” says Diana Cusumano, director of JED’s campus and wellness initiatives. “Everyone’s going to feel different. … We’re all under such trauma. Losing loved ones, altered experiences. Even if people think all the remote work and the impacts of the pandemic haven’t affected them, I can tell you it’s affected them.”

Dr. Annelle Primm, senior medical director at the Steve Fund, says the impact of these issues may be exacerbated for Black students and other students of color, who often “suffer in silence.”

Primm cites “this prolonged period during which Black students and students from other marginalized communities have carried extra burdens on top of the average young person” and points out that the disparities in the number of cases and deaths from COVID-19 are greater in communities of color. That, on top of already existing disparities in unemployment rates and the financial adversities brought on by the pandemic, “means there’s a lot more loss that young people of color are experiencing,” Primm says. 

And all of these things could have an impact on students’ ability to even return to school. When you add in “some of the issues with systemic injustice, and with the violence and killing of unarmed Black people and other people of color … it gives people a sense that their lives are not valued and that they are in danger just by being who they are, doing everyday things,” Primm continues. 

Taking a look at campus policies 

Cusumano says administrators “need to continue to be flexible — not just with students, but also with staff. Remember that [people] might still be burnt out from the spring semester. Students might lose motivation earlier in the semester,” she says.

And in the case of students of color, being hyper aware that even “before the pandemic and all of that, students of color were already at risk of experiencing racial bias, racial microaggressions, racial profiling in the educational setting on campus and also in the community surrounding the campus,” Primm says. 

Diana CusumanoDiana CusumanoAnd since racism and racial discrimination can have a negative impact on mental health, “that places students of color at risk of increased psychological distress, anxiety, depression, [and even things that are] not necessarily a diagnosable mental illness … but those things can have an impact on their sleep, their ability to focus,” she says. “These are burdens that White students don’t have to deal with. And, unfortunately, while students of color and [their White counterparts] have similar rates of mental illness, [students from minoritized populations] are much less likely to seek help.”

Even still the heightened awareness around mental health, plus the perfect storm of factors adding to the normal stressors that exist on a college campus — particularly for students of color — may lead to more students wanting to take leave to focus on their own mental health. In the wake of a recent controversy with Brown University denying students readmission after they’d taken mental health leave, experts say administrators should take this time to examine their own mental health policies.

“Our hope is that schools are being proactive — that should be the default,” she says. “Let’s put this out there, let’s make sure that if students are making a decision to take a leave of absence, which we know is a really challenging decision to begin with, that we make sure we give them all the information they need for that process.” 

“Acknowledging that mental health is and should be a priority on campus is really important, and making sure that students are educated from the time they step on campus [about] the support policies, procedures and protocol that students have in place,” she adds. 

The most important thing, experts agree, is ensuring congruence between mental and physical health leave policies and making sure both are easy to find. The policies should clearly articulate the institution’s expectations for a student while they’re on leave, including benchmarks for return and how to re-access the institution, Aisaka says, noting, “a lot of schools have a leave policy, but not a return policy.”

Coordination across different units on campus to make sure student counseling, academic affairs and financial aid are all on the same page about a student’s status makes a big difference as well. 

“Leave policies are helpful to erase the stigma of taking a withdrawal, but also from a financial aid standpoint … paying attention to the language that’s in your policy” matters a lot, Cusumano says, because the difference between withdrawing and taking leave has a major impact on financial aid. 

Many institutions already have good leave policies, but no one knows where to find them — or that they even exist, say Aisaka and Cusumano. So it’s critical that the policies are easy to find on the university’s website and even in class syllabi, covered in orientation, and reinforced across campus activities, they say.

Finally, it’s important for campus leaders to make mental health a shared responsibility on campus. “Make sure that the work doesn’t fall solely on the counseling center staff,” Cusumano says. “I think school administrators can make communication that everyone can check in on students, especially faculty, because they’re in the best position to check in on students.” 

Primm says it’s important for students to make sure they know that “regardless of what happens, you are still a valued human being that your family loves, and you’re still part of a community and a village.”

“They may not always succeed and they may not always be the best, but there has to be some balance there,” she says.   

This article originally appeared in the September 30, 2021 edition of Diverse. Read it here.