Congress Blog

Congress needs to help schools meet mental health challenges

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Imagine the burden schools are carrying this fall - having to manage the mental health of student bodies jolted by pandemic-related anxiety, grief, and displacement. At some point last year, two-thirds of U.S. college students struggled with loneliness and 83 percent said their mental health negatively impacted their academic performance

Thankfully a bipartisan group of U.S. House members are sponsoring the Enhancing Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Through Campus Planning Act, reintroduced on Sept. 28 by Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), which incentivizes colleges to develop and implement comprehensive mental health and suicide prevention plans.

This bill, endorsed by the organization we help lead - The Jed Foundation (JED), along with other like-minded organizations, aligns strongly with our mission. We at JED have been working with colleges for the last 20 years to develop exactly these types of programs, ones that organize every stakeholder into a unified force that protects the mental health of every student. We anticipate that schools that do not adopt a comprehensive approach will struggle to handle the sheer volume and intensity of pandemic-related issues their student body is likely to carry. Our model is an evidence-based approach - originally developed by the U.S. Air Force in response to a string of suicides in the 1990s - and modified for use with teens and young adults.

Two guiding principles guide this approach: a school-wide approach where everyone has a role to play in supporting young adult mental health; and senior leadership support for long-term, systemic change. 

The first step in our comprehensive approach is to form an inclusive leadership team of school administrators, teachers, coaches, and students along with community leaders like public health and public safety officials.

The next step is for the team to collect data on the specific challenges and stressors their students face, as well as attitudes and behaviors around seeking help if they or a peer are struggling. The team should assess existing policies, programs, and systems and identify gaps that could hamper progress in alleviating student mental health struggles. The team should identify improvements that would cultivate an environment that actively promotes social connectedness, the development of life skills, help-seeking, recognizing signs of distress in others, systematizing proven crisis management procedures, popularizing health and counseling services and restricting access to lethal means. Once gaps are identified, it is essential to develop a strategic plan to address those gaps, outlining goals and concrete action steps to meet those goals.

The next step is ensuring equitable implementation of this comprehensive approach. Mental health needs are not uniform across all student populations. Ethnicity, race, socioeconomic status, and gender identity are a few examples of student groups that may differ significantly concerning challenges they face and how best to support their mental health. Students from different geographical areas may lack support resources that others do not. It is paramount that teams garner input from those who can highlight specific needs inherent within each community the school serves.

Additionally, teams should strongly consider incorporating and utilizing voices with significant impact on young people, like celebrities and influencers. The extent to which public figures have discussed their own struggles with mental health is one of the most positive aspects of our digital media culture. Megan Markle, Selena Gomez, and Michael Phelps are well-known proponents of seeking help for mental health challenges. Working their narratives into educational messages for student consumption can be uniquely effective.

This year, while political divisions are pulling us apart, one thing that should - and must -  unite us is the well-being of our youth. Congress should pass the Enhancing Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Through Campus Planning Act to get critical resources to colleges when they need them the most. Comprehensive mental health protection plans are the best way to reduce the worst effects of the pandemic placed on our country's young adults. This fall, let's put aside our differences and come together to ensure that these plans succeed. Our young people's health depends on it.

John MacPhee is CEO of The Jed Foundation and Nance Roy, Ed.D., is Chief Clinical Officer of The Jed Foundation.