Brief

Survey: Colleges struggling to meet mental health needs of students

Dive Brief:

  • College students often wait weeks to see a mental health counselor, and it can take even longer to see a psychiatrist who can prescribe or adjust medications, STAT reports.
  • The need for mental health services has spurred a petition that students plan to send to 20 universities, including Harvard and Yale, where suicide or drug overdose have claimed seven lives this school year.  
  • While most schools have 24-hour suicide hotlines and quickly schedule appointments for students who say they are suicidal, many are reluctant to make that claim, pushing them to the end of the line.

Dive Insight:

Colleges and universities are struggling to keep up with the demand for mental health services, but there has been recent federal action to improve behavioral health opportunities. There are also promising developments in telehealth and efforts to coordinate mental health with primary services.

Of the 98 colleges and universities STAT surveyed about mental health services, 50 responded. Wait times for a counseling appointment at could take up to three weeks at schools like Northwestern and Washington University in St. Louis. At smaller schools, like Minnesota’s Carleton College, patients frequently wait up to 10 days.

College counselors realize there is a problem, but don’t have the resources to respond faster. At Indiana University, for example, there is just one are just 25 mental health provider for 38,364 undergraduate students. There are other barriers to treatment, as well, including limited hours and caps on the number of free counseling sessions.

The last session of Congress saw a bipartisan push for mental health reform. The 21st Century Cures Act, signed into law in December by President Obama, authorizes $1 billion over the next two years to address the nation’s opioid crisis and includes a number of mental health provisions. For example, the law creates a new HHS assistant secretary of mental health and substance abuse disorders and provides for community-level grants for outpatient treatment. It also increases enforcement of the rule on parity of mental health coverage and helps providers track available inpatient beds.

Studies have shown that telehealth practices could help more people get treated. According to a recent report by Frost & Sullivan, digital health technologies are revolutionizing the way providers treat mental health disorders and increasing access to those who need care. Growth in telehealth services for behavioral care is expected to be in the double digits over the next five years.

Better integration of behavioral health with primary care, such as with accountable care organizations, could also help. A study by UCLA researchers published in Health Affairs showed a 13% decline in emergency room use when accountable care organizations integrated behavioral health services into primary care.

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