Congress Should Invest in Student Mental Health (Opinion)

From 16 July, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline became more accessible – simply by dialing 988. With mental health crises taking so many tolls, this is a welcome step. Robust and effective suicide prevention begins with early intervention through timely and easy access to mental health care. For busy and struggling students, including non-traditional students who commute to college and in many cases have jobs and parental responsibilities, what is readily available on campus is critical.

Creating the minds of tomorrow is job #1 for our colleges and universities. But we expect today’s students to succeed academically while neglecting their critical mental and emotional needs. Last year, Congress increased funding to support youth mental health through the Garrett Lee Smith (GLS) Memorial Act Youth Suicide Prevention Program, but kept higher education funding under GLS Campus Grants at $6.488 million, the same amount. awarded in fiscal year 2021.

As students in higher education continue to speak more openly about their growing mental health issues, leaders both on and off campus need to take notice. Even before the pandemic, our campuses struggled to keep up with the mental health needs of their students. As the pandemic subsides and the mental health crisis continues to grow, they are even less equipped to provide critical care as much or as quickly as needed. Mental health support should be as accessible as faculty hours. We’re getting serious.

For students, this need is urgent.

Between 2013 and 2018, the percentage of students with an average age of 21 who attempted suicide doubled, and the proportion of students reporting major depression increased from 9% to 21%. The National College Health Assessment Association’s fall 2021 survey found that nearly 73 percent of college students reported struggling with moderate or severe psychological distress. Approximately 70 percent of college presidents identified student mental health struggles as a priority need.

Campuses have a responsibility to invest in easily accessible mental health services, but so does Congress. Congress should act quickly by significantly funding the Garrett Lee Smith Campus Suicide Prevention Grant. It is the only federal program specifically available to support campus mental health needs. But its annual budget of just $7 million means that only a handful of colleges and universities in the country—those that pass a lengthy application review process—get access to these life-saving funds.

It was encouraging to see the recently introduced FY 2023 Committee Appropriations bill for Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, which includes a slight increase in grants for the GLS campus to nearly $11.5 million . This is just the beginning, urgently needed. The Senate Appropriations Committee must now follow suit in its upcoming FY 2023 funding bill.

In April, higher education advocates and nearly 100 organizations sent a letter to congressional leaders calling for support and prioritization of the mental and behavioral health needs of the estimated 20 million students enrolled in higher education. we wrote

The scope and scale of the student mental health crisis will require far more support than the federal government is currently providing, and will require the federal government to provide support to institutions and students in a timely and flexible manner. Congress should update and dramatically expand the authorization level for the GLS program for higher education.

The letter also calls on Congress to “update the Public Health Act and the Higher Education Act to support holistic and evidence-based practices that address the mental health needs of students.”

As summer turns to fall, millions of students will return to campus. They will carry with them the burden of academic pressure, financial strain, and family responsibilities while waging what is often a secret battle with depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions that can worsen without proper care. Integral to our economic recovery and the likelihood that students will achieve academic success is ensuring that mental health care is available on our campuses where students can access services. Today’s students, our nation’s future workforce, deserve to have help available when and where they need it most. Congress can and should.

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