Remove barriers to make mental health services accessible for college students

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The coronavirus pandemic has led colleges and universities to navigate the “new normal” with a singular focused goal: supporting our students and campus communities in a holistic way. As presidents of Jesuit institutions, we use the term “cura personalis” — care for the whole person — to describe the caring and formation of our students, faculty and staff. Special attention is given to students in their journeys. We display this in solidarity whereby we accompany one another toward the end for which we believe we are created. 

Students’ growth is measured by academic success and, in equal part, their social and emotional well-being. While we are working tirelessly to ensure our students can flourish as part of their new virtual learning community through rigorous and meaningful instruction, we also want to do more to address students who are struggling to obtain help for their mental, behavioral and emotional needs, but are facing barriers associated with state laws on telehealth and licensure.

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. 

Several of our nation’s governors are demonstrating leadership in protecting the safety and well-being of their citizens, including many who are issuing waivers on telehealth and state licensure to allow for the temporary provision of services by a licensed professional outside of a patient’s state during this time of emergency.

Unfortunately, there are significant variations to each waiver, from time limits to types of practitioners allowed to obtain such waivers, creating an uneven patchwork between states. For universities, which welcome students from across the United States and countries around the world, navigating through state waivers presents an unnecessary and formidable challenge in providing services precisely at the moment when our students are most in need.

Research shows that students’ mental and emotional health have an impact on their success in college. The American College Health Association found in a 2019 survey that students who reported psychological distress (anxiety, depression, or stress) also reported receiving lower grades on exams or important projects and courses, or receiving an “incomplete,” or dropping courses altogether. 

Before COVID-19, many of our institutions recognized and prioritized the mental and behavioral health needs of our students. But the pandemic has added a layer of massive uncertainty, impacting entire campus communities and striking those areas with the greatest economic disparities and inadequate mental health resources the hardest. A growing number of students, many of whom may never have had to seek such services before, are now the individuals most in need of the support from their college and university counseling centers.

We need our state and national leaders to act swiftly. We have joined the higher education and health communities to call on all governors to heed the call of the Secretary of Health and Human Services and issue uniform waivers allowing for providers licensed in one state to offer services in others.

We are also working with congressional leaders to raise awareness in the hope that Congress will establish a temporary, nationwide waiver in the next coronavirus relief bill. We should all appeal to our governors, senators and representatives about allowing providers to practice across state lines during the pandemic. 

Rev. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., the former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, once said, “To be just is not enough to refrain from injustice. One must go further and refuse to play its game, substituting love for self-interest as the driving force of society.” At the University of Detroit Mercy and Rockhurst University, we continue to prepare our students to do just that: set out on a path with a passion to do justice and work tirelessly for the common good.

Our ability to address the mental and behavioral health needs of all our students, around the country and across the globe, will strengthen them in their resolve to be engaged citizens for justice. This is central to who we are and what we are about as Jesuit universities. Now, we respectfully request, that you accompany us in our efforts to accompany our students.

Rev. Thomas B. Curran, S.J. is the president of Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Miss. Dr. Antoine M. Garibaldi is the president of the University of Detroit Mercy in Detroit, Mich.


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