Suicide Prevention Awareness Month 

Suicide Prevention Awareness Month: Prioritizing Student Mental Health In Higher Education

By: Heather Ward, Special Assistant, Office of Postsecondary Education 

If you need suicide or mental health-related crisis support, or are worried about someone else, please call or text 988 or visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s chat to connect with a trained crisis counselor. 

As U.S. Department of Education officials have traveled the country visiting institutions of higher education and talking with students, a constant theme is mental health and the growing crisis facing our nation. In conversations, the Department has heard from students about losing peers to suicide and the effect these tragedies have had on them personally.  

Young adults are particularly vulnerable. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young adults aged 18-24. In a 2021 survey by the Healthy Minds Network, 13% of college students admitted to suicidal ideation within the past year, with 5% having a plan and 1% attempting. One of the few positive trends in mental health is the decrease in stigmatization toward seeking help and receiving treatment. In that same 2021 survey, stigma decreased by 18% between 2007 and 2017. The COVID-19 pandemic certainly exacerbated the growing mental health crisis, but it is clear that students were struggling far before the pandemic hit. Students are ready to ask for help – how will we respond? 

The Department is committed to tackling this crisis. In May 2022, the Department issued guidance encouraging use of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) to invest in mental health supports for students, faculty, and staff. These funds should be a down payment on long-term investments. Already, institutions across the country have been using their HEERF grants for mental health supports. 

Foothills-De Anza Community College used HEERF American Rescue Plan funds to create a Mental Wellness Ambassador program aimed at promoting mental health services, reducing stigma surrounding mental disorders, creating community, and fostering an inclusive and non-judgmental campus culture.  

Northern Arizona University invested $300,000 in HEERF institutional funds to expand both in-person and virtual mental health counseling services.  

It is essential that colleges and universities be active, equal partners with us in this work by investing resources in their students’ mental health through actions including but not limited to in-person counseling, teletherapy, wellness activities, and basic needs supports among many existing evidence-based best practices. Partnership between the Department and institutions is critical because the government cannot implement these transformational practices without support from community and campus leaders around the country.

But HEERF is not the only source of federal dollars colleges and universities can use to improve mental health services. Institutions can braid their HEERF grants with other federal funding to provide on campus supports. Basic needs, such as housing security and food security, provide a role in students’ mental health. The Department offers a Basic Needs Grant and the Childcare Access Means Parents In School (CCAMPIS) grant specifically focuses on childcare access. A lack of basic needs is a major contributing factor to poor mental health. Students cannot be expected to succeed in the classroom if they spend more time concerned about where they will sleep or where their next meal will come from. Alleviating unnecessary stressors such as food and housing insecurity or ensuring a safe place for young children of student parents to learn and grow can have a positive impact on a student’s mental health. Meeting basic needs will not solve all mental health issues, but we owe it to our students to remove these barriers to success.  

Other agencies in the government are also taking bold action as part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s whole of government approach to augment services and improve support for mental health and wellness.  In July 2022, the Department of Health and Human Services launched the 988 Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Anyone, including any student, who is in crisis can simply text or call 988 to reach a trained counselor. The transition to the 988 Lifeline is an important step forward in providing people an entry point to the support and care they need. In the week following the 988 launch, there was a 45% increase in contacts. And 988 Lifeline counselors answered 23,000 more calls, texts, and chats than they had the week before. These essential services will help provide the foundation for future government-wide efforts to improving mental health services.  

In the coming months, the Department will continue to investigate additional ways to provide mental health resources to institutions, especially those serving our most under-resourced students.  

Now is the time to act. Our nation’s students are counting on us, and we cannot let them down.