2022 Update: The CARES Act and University Mental Health

Mental Health Remains a Pressing Issue for College Students

Data paints a bleak picture of the state of mental health on college campuses. In a September 2021 American Council on Education survey, over three-quarters of presidents at public four-year institutions rated the mental health of their student body as worse than in previous years. This assessment is also reflected in student survey findings: just over 51% of students screened positive for anxiety in December, a notable increase from 39% only four months prior. The numbers for depression also increased, from 24% to 33.4% 

Inquiries into what is contributing to the drop off in college students’ mental wellness reveal that managing coursework is the most prevalent stressor. According to the American Campus Communities College (ACC) Student 2021 Mental Wellness report, for students whose anxiety has worsened this year, 76% cite reengaging in their full course load as their greatest source of stress. This finding is reinforced by recent research into college students’ burnout rates. In a survey conducted by the Ohio State University’s Office of the Chief Wellness Officer, a record high of 71% of students reported burnout in April of 2021, compared to 40% in August of 2020. 

The ACC survey, which was administered by email to over 8,900 students, highlights that mental health is a pressing concern for college students. Notably, 93% of surveyed students agree that “mental health is an important component of their overall health and wellbeing.”  At Saint Louis University, over 9,000 people signed a petition asking for more mental health services. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has amplified this rallying cry, advocating for mental wellbeing as the foundation for pandemic recovery.  

HEERF III: The Latest Installment of Federal Funding

As the COVID-19 Pandemic rages on, institutions of higher education continue to face the high-stakes challenge of maximizing relief funding through intentional investments. Most recently, colleges have received American Rescue Plan (ARP) HEERF III funds that now need to be allocated. 

These funds are the latest installment in The Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) model, a series of COVID stimulus bills for institutions of higher education, established in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act in 2020. 

HEERF Timeline:

  • March of 2020: HEERF I $31 billion 
  • December of 2020: HEERF II $82 billion
  • March of 2021: HEERF III $76 billion

HEERF III includes $40 billion for higher education institutions, available through September 30, 2023. HEERF III spending is dictated by the same guidelines as previous HEERF installations: 50% of HEERF funds must be allocated to student grants and the remaining half is designated to institutional costs. The latter category encompasses a wide range of student-needs arising from or exacerbated by the pandemic. 

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona addresses the purpose of funding college mental health services: “To make sure our nation’s institutions of higher education–particularly those that serve students most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic–receive the resources they need in order to provide students with a high-quality education and the social, emotional and mental health supports to earn their degrees and thrive.” 

State Funds for College Mental Health

In addition to HEERF funds, many states have developed their own funding programs dedicated to college mental health services. For example, California has been providing funding to UC, CSU, and CCC for student mental health services since the 2017-18 academic year. The state initially gave one-time appropriations, but began providing ongoing funding for mental health services in recent years.  

On December 8th, 2021, Connecticut launched the Connecticut Campus Mental Health program, providing $2.7 million to colleges and universities in Connecticut . The program aims to enhance student access to care, bolster evidence-based practices, and support culturally competent care. Interim commissioner Nancy Navarretta of the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services stated, “There’s no more important investment of state funds and resources, nor one that will pay bigger dividends in the future, than the investment in young peoples’ mental health.”

Investments in Mental Health by Leading Colleges and Universities

Some colleges and universities have received further instructions as to how much of their federal funding should be dedicated to mental health resources. In New York, SUNY colleges and universities have been directed to use five percent of their ARP grants to expand and enhance student mental health services. 

SUNY Brockport President Heidi Macpherson said, “At SUNY Brockport, we strive to improve the accessibility of mental health resources for our diverse student population and their ever-changing mental health needs. Doing more requires additional resources, and we are grateful that SUNY shares our commitment to this important work."

In North Carolina, the 12 UNC System institutions were awarded nearly $1 million in mental health grants. Allocated from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) fund, these infusions are intended to bolster mental health care offerings on campus. According to Peter Hans, the President of the UNC System, “These grants should help campuses scale up their mental health services to meet the real and growing needs of students.”

Strategic Guidance for Leadership to Optimize Funds

Colleges and universities that have identified sources of funding for bolstering mental health services are faced with the strategic decision of how to allocate funds. Funneling funds into existing services can seem like a promising option. However, when the goal is sustainable, high-quality care, the most impactful solutions can involve new approaches tailored to the needs of institutions and their students. 

It is worth investing in solutions that improve access to licensed clinicians with diverse identities and experiences to meet with students regularly. BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students, in particular, are more likely to have their mental health care needs met when a large pool of diverse providers is at the counseling center’s disposal.

Tara Hodgens, LMFT explains, “We know from research that what supports good outcomes in therapy is the relationship that a client has with their therapist. Representation matters in mental health because it can interrupt that distrust when underserved communities have access to therapists that struggle and fight the same system through lived experiences.”

One way some colleges have increased access to culturally competent care is by supplementing services with telehealth. Telehealth has an excellent record of clinical outcomes; “The research shows that clinicians can be as effective in a telehealth environment as they are in face-to-face,” according to Arthur C. Evans,  Chief Executive of the American Psychological Association. 

As hiring clinicians on college campuses becomes increasingly harder, telehealth has proven to be a reliable source of clinical capacity for many institutions who are seeing a surge in demand for mental health services from their students.

Bring an Innovative Mental Health Care Solution to Your Campus

Intentional investment into mental health services can be a game changer for colleges and universities. Relief funds can open doors for heightened access to quality care, especially when university leadership strategically aligns with the needs and priorities of students. 

To learn more about how Mantra can expand access to mental healthcare on your campus through your HEERF funding, click this link to speak with our partnerships team (or email partner@mantrahealth.com).