By Jenny Smulson, Vice President of Government Relations, AJCU
If you asked a college or university president to name his or her biggest priority today, you may be surprised to learn that it is the mental health needs of their students. While they are still grappling with major pandemic-related issues (e.g., Covid testing and PPE, budget deficits, transitions to virtual or hybrid learning, and questions about enrollment for the next academic year), 70% of presidents identified, in a recent survey by the American Council on Education, student mental health as a major concern, or their number one consideration.
National and local news headlines have alerted all of us to the massive toll the pandemic has taken on our nation’s health, both physical and mental. College students are not immune, with cases of anxiety, depression, stress, and isolation growing and impacting both their well-being and their academic progress. According to a recent survey by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, “Sixty-five percent of students said the pandemic has led to some mental health challenges, and 61 percent said it hurt their motivation and focus. Sixty percent of the [surveyed] students said the pandemic has caused loneliness or isolation, and 59 percent said it has negatively affected their academics.”
Additional survey data from the American College Health Association and the Healthy Minds Network found that two-thirds of students have reported their financial situations to have worsened during the pandemic, noting that financial stress is a predictor of student mental health. And sixty percent of students indicated that the pandemic has made it more difficult to access mental health care.
For many college students, the counseling center on their campuses may be their first introduction to mental health support—for others, it is a critical lifeline that will allow them to thrive academically while living with a previous mental health diagnosis. Licensed mental health providers have long been able to treat students from every state while they are on campus, but the pandemic upended that practice last year. With students attending class virtually, and not necessarily living on campus, licensed counselors and health professionals have been hindered by state laws that prevent them from treating students in another state, where the providers may not be licensed to practice. While some states issued emergency waivers to allow the use of telehealth at the start of the pandemic (thus enabling providers to support clients outside the states where they were licensed), they were not uniform, making it even more challenging for colleges and universities to serve their students.
Last April, AJCU presidents called on Congress to provide a federal solution to this national problem, including Dr. Antoine M. Garibaldi, president of the University of Detroit Mercy, and Rev. Thomas B. Curran, S.J. president of Rockhurst University, who co-authored an op-ed for The Hill. They wrote, “Academic success and wellness are mutually dependent: the roadblocks that college and university counseling centers face today may have long-term, lasting impacts on the ability of students to cope, learn and succeed through these extraordinarily trying times.”
In partnership with higher education, the Temporary Reciprocity to Ensure Access to Treatment Act (H.R. 708/S.168, 117th U.S. Congress, or TREAT Act) was developed and introduced with bi-partisan support in the U.S. House of Representatives (led by Representatives Robert Latta and Debbie Dingell) and the U.S. Senate (led by Senators Chris Murphy and Roy Blunt). This legislation eliminates the patchwork approach to state emergency waivers by providing temporary state licensing reciprocity for licensed practitioners in good standing to practice in another state during this public health emergency. For college students who are attending school virtually, it offers them a means of accessing the support that their college counseling centers seek to provide.
Since its introduction in Summer 2020, AJCU has been an early and ardent advocate for the legislation. Several of our leaders, including President John J. DeGioia of Georgetown University and President Fred Pestello of Saint Louis University, worked forcefully behind the scenes to encourage lawmakers to pass the bill before the close of the 116th U.S. Congress. Unfortunately, those efforts fell short and the legislation was not passed last year. But within the first weeks of the new 117th U.S. Congress, the bill has been reintroduced by the same bipartisan, bicameral team.
We, along with our member institutions, continue our advocacy to press for the passage of this legislation. The TREAT Act is also supported by more than 100 organizations, associations, colleges and universities. Together with our Jesuits institutions and the higher education community, AJCU is helping to lead the charge in finding more co-sponsors and educating Congressional staff about our concern for our students and the solution that the TREAT Act provides for them. We will keep you apprised of developments in the weeks and months to come.