A stethoscope attached to a brain illustrates the concept of campus mental health.

4 ways investing in campus mental health pays back

Institutions are learning the importance of proactive campus mental health services and programs--here's why it matters so much

Addressing the mental health needs of students on campus is urgent. But a common challenge for colleges and universities is finding the funding and resources to dedicate to mental health solutions. Learn how institutions benefit from investment in a preventive approach to campus mental health with the infographic below.

Colleges and universities play a critical role in addressing the mental health needs of their students. Campus mental health is a topic that is impossible to ignore, with rising prevalence of issues like anxiety and depression and a growing treatment gap when it comes to accessing mental health treatment.

Related content: New digital tool targets campus mental health support

Regardless of size, geography, student population, and existing mental health resources, higher education shares a common goal: to decrease the number of students with untreated mental health problems. To close the treatment gap, there are a variety of approaches to reducing barriers to care.

Where to start with limited resources for campus mental health

Campuses are aware of the costs of not addressing campus mental health. The need is urgent, but finding the funding and having the time and resources to dedicate to mental health solutions can be a challenge. For example, community colleges may not have dedicated mental health counseling on campus when it is community college students who are the least likely to receive help for mental health.

To address the needs of students, colleges and universities with limited resources should be confident they are investing wisely with the right tools and resources. Luckily, there’s evidence to support that spending on mental health is an approach that pays off for universities. And, there are ways to make concise economic and institutional calculations that justify these investments on your own campus.

About California’s statewide study

A major study conducted by RAND that began in 2011 looked at 39 public campuses in California. The campuses spanned the University of California system, the California State University system, and the California Community Colleges system. Surveying over 33,000 students and 14,000 faculty, the study focused on prevention and early intervention to accomplish three goals:

1. Help people on campus recognize and support students in need of mental health care
2. Combat the stigma of mental illness
3. Give students tools for dealing with stress and other personal and emotional problems

California higher education institutions were given funding from the California Mental Health Services Authority (CalMHSA). This funding supported social marketing campaigns and various training programs, including Kognito’s At-Risk mental health training simulations for faculty and staff and students, which are currently available to the entire California Community Colleges (CCC) network. In fact, students who completed a Kognito simulation reported a 73 percent increase in the number of peers whom they referred to mental health services.

The findings, highlighted below, provide an evaluation and economic evidence for a comprehensive approach to campus mental health. These results help support how different types of higher education institutions can start to tackle the question of return on investment.

How investing in prevention pays off in the future

In the long-term, campuses see more at-risk students accessing mental health treatment, and related benefits as groups and entire campuses become activated to encourage help-seeking. This infographic, based on research from the Healthy Minds Network, shows four institutional benefits that result from this approach.

1. Increased student satisfaction

Connecting students dealing with a mental illness to mental health support services allows them to re-focus on their academic and extracurricular lives on campus. Across multiple students, closing the gap between mental health needs and treatment starts to reduce burnout and improve overall wellbeing on campus.

In tandem, social and environmental determinants play a role in enhancing mental wellness. Improving attitudes and lowering stigma reduces barriers when it comes to comfort in seeking services. Positive interactions and networks of support are also protective factors that improve campus climate.

The RAND study found that when students felt that fellow students would support them in seeking treatment, they were 20 percent more likely to receive services, and 60 percent more likely to do so on campus. Calculated another way, if every public college student in California attended a campus with a culture that supported mental health, the chances of that student getting needed services would rise by 40%.

2. Increased retention

Mental health issues interfere with academic success. Schools are already dealing with student retention due to a variety of factors, of which mental health can exacerbate this rate. Without adequate treatment, a negative campus climate, or other barriers, students may explore a leave of absence or drop out altogether. In fact, the Healthy Minds study found that depression is associated with a two-fold increase in the risk of a student not graduating.

Increasing student satisfaction by reducing psychological distress among students directly contributes to increased retention when students can re-focus on their requirements to graduate. The RAND study calculated that with their intervention efforts across California schools, 329 dropouts were averted.

3. Increased tuition dollars

Reducing a school’s dropout rate event just slightly can yield large returns for universities. Healthy Minds approximates that reaching adding mental health services to reach 1,000 more students would yield retention of 20 students who would otherwise not graduate. This adds up to $1 million in tuition saved among that sample group.

In another estimate, Healthy Minds approximates that for every dollar spent on mental health initiatives on campus, there is roughly a doubling in return on investment in terms of tuition dollars retained because of dropouts averted.

4. Increased reputation and alumni giving

Investing in student well-being has benefits long into the future. As increased attention is turning to actions that universities are taking around mental health, there is opportunity for positive recognition for campus mental health efforts. This extends to community relations, media coverage, and prospective students. Showcasing efforts in campus mental health is now even a factor in where students decide to attend school.

Happy students who graduate and go on to successful careers will carry the sentiment of their college experience with them forever. For 20 students who access mental health services in college and avoid dropping out, this adds $4 million to their expected lifetime earnings. Mental health also correlates to higher likelihood of donating as alumni.

For society, the 329 averted dropouts from mental health efforts in the California RAND study would generate $56.1 million in increased earning potential and decreased societal costs for California.

Next steps for managing campus mental health initiatives

The connectedness of a school campus makes them an ideal setting for mental health prevention. It’s easy to list the benefits of adopting mental health programs that link more students to mental health support. But the challenge lies in making a decision that maximizes resources, is evidence-based, and is simple to implement.

These four ways that investment pays off are just a few of the ways that investing in campus mental health prevention can be justified when campuses are resource-strapped. If you’re just getting started, don’t miss the Healthy Minds Network Return on Investment Calculator, and the JED Foundation/EDC’s Guide to Campus Mental Health Action Planning.

eSchool Media Contributors