How to gauge schools' mental health supports -- figuring out the "wellness factor"?

I’ve got another thread asking for help with my D22’s college list, so hope it’s okay to start a new one as I’d like to focus on one aspect of our search – mental health support.

D is seeking a college environment where she can be constantly challenged intellectually, but amongst peers who are more collaborative than competitive. She wants academic rigor, but also wants to be happy and enjoy her college years.

We realize that finding the right “fit” school is a huge step in that direction, so she is looking for where she will be challenged but not in over her head academically, the workload is robust but not overwhelming, she can find her nerdy people amongst a student body that is more collaborative than competitive, she can feel comfortable as an LGBTQ+ Asian American, etc.

But even if all those “fit” factors are there, we realize they don’t necessarily equate with good mental health. So, we want to ensure there’s a safety net and, as importantly, that the school has made student mental health a priority. She is checking resources on each school’s website, asking at info sessions, etc., but are there other ways to get this info, something like the Campus Pride Index for LGBTQ+ kids?

I don’t expect a ranking to give a definitive answer, but am searching for another source of info to help us gauge the “wellness factor” at different schools. I did find the Active Minds Healthy Campus Award list, which was helpful. Are there other sites that have similar info?

Thanks!

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Our experience has been that there is a discrepancy between what the official word from the school or student health services and what the actual experience is for students. My suggestion is to read through the online newspapers of the schools you are considering. Mental health and support is something that the students are pretty vocal about and the student voices will be more unfiltered than the official talking points.

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Most schools have some level of campus mental health support. Their struggle, however, seems to be an inability for them to “out-hire” the need. The results can be waitlists and a lack of diversity among the counseling staff. Many colleges are now seeking 3rd party resources to keep their heads above water. IMO if a school enlists an outside group to complement their staff, they are doing their part to ensure that students are mentally healthy. Given your need, I would look at college programs 1-by-1.

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Thank you so much. Yes, we’ve been looking at student newspapers plus reddit sites, and I think that’s partly why I came to ask the question as I was alarmed by so many reports of student suicides across many campuses. So we’re looking there for anecdotal info, concerns raised by students, etc. And checking with the schools to see what formal supports are in place, etc.

Thank you, I guess it’s hard for us to compare schools so I’m trying to find a way to suss out what factors would define robust mental health supports. So looking at waitlists and outside resources complement is a good start for us.

Appreciate that and other suggestions of factors to look at. I think I need to make a new spreadsheet to compare D’s list of schools!

Thank you @michaeluwill and @helpingmom40!

I am guessing you have had the same experience I have, but my impression is that small private schools have more resources and fewer students competing for those resources— and that means easier access to counseling/mental health supports. At small LACs, there is often less anonymity and more students “looking out” for each other and sounding the alarm — a student in a mental health crisis is not able to hide as easily as at a huge school.

That said, my own child prefers the variety of opportunities and people that come with larger public institutions. So I have been sure to try to lay the groundwork for de-stigmatizing mental health struggles or seeking help as a college freshman and emphasizing that it is important not to wait if the need arises. But for students who might be particularly vulnerable for one reason or another, I wonder if it is worth establishing a proactive relationship with a mental health therapist in the college town/city, so that regardless of what supports the school provides, the student will already have someone touching base and won’t have the burden of having to seek help for the first time when things go sideways.

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Thank you, that’s a very smart approach and we will try to set D up with outside resources too. It does seem like a smaller school would make it harder to fall through the cracks, although there still needs to be some basic infrastructure and healthy climate to support the kids.

My D is interested in schools big and small, so as @michaeluwill said it seems we will need to check each college individually. I’m starting a list of questions based on the suggestions here as well as the factors highlighted in the Active Minds Healthy Campus report.

Appreciate the discussion and any more suggestions! Thanks!

Don’t assume that the only problem is “falling through the cracks”. A college can be as supportive and attentive as all get out, but if its health center has ONE practitioner, and the local area has 5 therapists, only one of whom is taking new patients, your kid could have a LONG wait…

We saw small schools which only had bareboned staffing in the health center on weekends. We saw big, rural schools which had limited ability to refer out because there weren’t a lot of resources in their communities.

Our kids all ended up in urban schools because that’s where they felt most comfortable, but I saw how even a healthy kid can break a limb; a kid may need more mental health support than a small college can provide, and knowing that our insurance would (and did!) cover a range of practitioners in the surrounding area was really helpful. One of my kids had a suitemate who had a mental health emergency late at night on a weekend. It was successfully resolved, kid went home for the rest of the semester, is doing great. Credit to the college’s staff shrink, the very loving on-call Doc at a big local hospital, and the college administration which insisted to the parents “Our priority is that your child get well. Don’t worry about anything else” and they didn’t. Retroactive withdrawals, paperwork, who covers what… all done after the emergency was over.

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From your original post, I was not sure whether your daughter has an existing mental health issue. If so, then of course she should register with the Office of Disabilities. You can research accommodations and write a letter listing them, for a doctor or other professional to sign. I would also suggest purchasing a tuition refund insurance plan that covers mental health.

The rest of your original post describes a need for rigor but not too rigorous, and cooperative/collaborative versus competitive. Are you able to visit campuses? We tended to hang out in the dining hall, library, bookstore or college green to get the “vibe.” After acceptance my kids attended some classes and one did an overnight.

Have you looked at the Colleges that Change Lives website at all? A lot of those schools might fit the bill. We really liked Clark U., for one.

You may not be able to ascertain everything you want to, before acceptance. Once accepted it was easier to get info, in our experience. But yeah, the official story may be different from the informal sources.

Cost, location, size, academics and “vibe” are all important factors as well as the “wellness” and mental health factors. It’s a lot to decide on!

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Some kids don’t need much support and would thrive just about anywhere. For others, fit is much more critical. You know your kid best so, trust your judgement.

IMHO, there’s no substitute for spending time on campus, checking the resources you think will be critical in person and for yourself - AND, while you are there, talking to current students.

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I would ask about wait time for non emergency appointments and also look into resources in the surrounding communities. Mental health resources have been stretched very thin during the pandemic.

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Virtual help may still be available which would widen the options in terms of location.

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Thank you for starting this thread as I think it’s pertinent to many families. I wasn’t aware of the Active Minds Healthy Campus awards, but in reviewing their website there are more than 600 chapters. I suspect that reaching out to individual schools’ chapters might be another way to gain a less filtered perspective on the mental health resources available at campuses you’re interested in from individuals who have some awareness of what their college should have as resources.

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This is such a difficult topic, because one of the toughest parts about mental vs physical health issues is that not only does help have to be available, but the person has to accept that help is needed, and that the help that is available is help that they want! I have seen a student come away thinking that the mental health services at his college are terrible- and a different student at the same college think the services are great.

Absolutely try and get a feel for the general tone or attitude toward mental health challenges at the colleges that you are interested in, but assume that they will be limited and imperfect, and at least identify, if not set up an outside resource in advance (possibly even with somebody local). Telehealth has come on amazingly during the pandemic and is turning out to be a great early filter for some students- some are more willing to check in online at an earlier stage of concern, so things are addressed before they fall apart. It has been the saving grace for a Collegeneice.

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I’ll be the odd person out here and say that I don’t think parents and students should be expecting colleges to take on responsibility for student’s mental health. Yes, a counselor for an initial check-in to figure out if they really need help, but then I think students and parents should seek help outside the college campus on their own, just as you would if your student had cancer or needed a liver transplant.

There are lots of counselors available around the country who practice virtually, so the fact that a college has only one overbooked counselor or is in a small town with only a few options doesn’t matter. One of my kids needed some assistance last year and we found a great counselor virtually. They worked through her issues without ever meeting in person, and we gave permission to my daughter to book future appointments if she ever feels she needs them, and we would pay without question. Knowing she can get help on her own, without having to tell us or go through a school office, has helped her feel more confident that she can tackle any future issues. It was totally worth the $1,500 we paid for about ten 45-minute sessions. Some insurance companies will cover or reimburse the cost, but I think it’s worth paying out of pocket if your kid needs it and it’s not covered.

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I agree with this. BUT- not every mental health issue ends up with a mental health diagnosis.

I know a kid who dropped out of college due to depression (tired all the time, slept through classes, loss of interest, loss of energy). A medical workup revealed a thyroid condition, cleared up in a month, back to college the next semester, problem solved. Lupus, Lyme, these are things that require an MD, lab work, and an attentive and inquisitive clinician to get to an answer and not assume that talk therapy and Prozac is always the answer even if the student “presents” with depressive symptoms.

I could cite other examples- but my point is that telehealth is great for some things, terrible for others. I would not assume that telehealth is going to be the right answer if a college has inadequate medical infrastructure.

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Suck it up. Sink or swim. Are these common refrains at a college? If so, it’s not a place where mental health awareness is high. If a student hasn’t attended class in 1, 2, or 3 weeks (probably fewer weeks at a small school, more weeks at a big school), is there any kind of a flag raised? If an RA notices that a resident hardly ever leaves his/her room or is never hanging out with someone, is there any kind of a step taken? These are measures that colleges can take that assist young adults in making the transition to increased independence who may not be aware (or may be intimidated) to get needed help.

It can still be a family’s responsibility (preferably with good health insurance coverage) to find long-term mental health supports, but when students are hours (often many, many hours) away from their families, who is going to help raise the flag that there’s a problem that needs to be addressed? And for students from low-income families, what kind of resources are available to them either directly through the university or getting them Medicaid or other resources to help pay for assistance?

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True, but note that a counselor must be licensed in the state a student resides.

You are not alone in feeling this way, but colleges have to take responsibility since the majority of students who drop out of college have a documented mental illness.

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I read somewhere recently that a new metric for college rankings would be to add their health services as part of the ranking and then colleges would make it more of a priority.

Both of our daughters LACs put on great presentations and reality does not map at either school. We have insurance, pretty proactive kids and they both have gone outside of the school because the wait can be days to a week for an appt to check for strep throat.

Can’t speak to direct experience for mental
health - but my kids say friends have felt their issues are referred to outside providers beyond the first appt and not easy to match with a therapist quickly. One had a student in her dorm self harming and the roommate contacted the parents, as she felt health services wasn’t acting quickly. Hearsay - but the parent facebook pages are full of frustrated parents regarding health services.

Having and understanding the options available outside of the campus highly advised including transportation.

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Thanks so much. I did look at the Colleges that Change Lives a while back but will look again. It’s so interesting how our view of all these schools has evolved.

Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to visit many campuses to get a good sense of each school’s vibe and will unlikely be able to before applications are due. I got a lot of good feedback in my other thread regarding other “fit” factors like school size, location, coursework, etc . But she still needs to narrow her list of applications, and as we’ve tried to imagine what life would be like at any of the campuses she’s considering, it occurred to me to focus in on the mental health & wellness supports at each school.

We have family and friends whose kids really struggled with mental health at college and my daughter’s high school, so student mental health has always been on my radar, of course especially so this past year. I’ve been reading reports of suicides in some of the school newspapers I’ve checked out, and yesterday saw this article about legislation to study mental health programs in colleges.

This all made me wonder why US News and other popular rankings don’t seem to cover what I think is a very important aspect of college life. So I started looking for other resources that give insights on what to look for, or that have already highlighted some schools’ efforts to support student wellness. So far, this is what I’ve found:

Also found this most-stressed colleges list which, not surprisingly, has most of D’s schools on it :flushed::

I guess at this point I’m trying to compile a list of factors to look at for each school, so we can better compare across campuses. D is already trying to assess how intense the stress culture is at each school – what the workload is like, how collaborative the environment is, etc, and we’ll be asking about all these factors for individual schools. So, far this is my list of what we’ll be looking for:

Physical Health
Access to gyms, health clinics
Classes/workshops on sleep, nutrition
Healthy dining options
Help for students needing food, housing, financial support

Mental Health
Classes/workshops: Yoga, Meditation/Mindfulness, Stress Management, Time Management
Support Groups
Intervention: Crisis Line, Counseling Services (low student:counselor ratio), Outside Referrals
Accommodations Policies for Leave of Absence, etc

Sexual Violence
Prevention Education/Training
Strong School/Title IX Policies/Enforcement
Survivor Support

Academic Balance
Manageable Course Workload
Academic Advising, Peer Advising, Tutoring

Culture
Administration Support/Prioritizing Student Wellness
Collaborative, Supportive Student Culture
Support for LGBTQ+, URM etc
Reduced Stigma (for academic & mental health help)

I guess I’ll need a big spreadsheet to capture all this info! :laughing: Seriously, I know there’s no perfect school, but I hope that looking into these features will help us get a better picture of what the school is really like. Appreciate hearing everyone’s insights and suggestions. Thanks!

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