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How we can explore mental health treatment as a retention initiative

First year retention and 6-year graduation rates are important for all colleges and universities, yet it’s time we started to discuss the idea of a break for mental health treatment as a retention initiative.

Mental Health on campus is a consistent topic of conversation in and out of higher education right now.  Most professionals working with Millennials and Gen Z young adults are attuned to their needs and understand a large percentage of this population is really struggling with anxiety and depression.  Yet we know that colleges, no matter whether they double their counseling staff, can’t match the demand of what students need.  So if we know we won’t have the capacity to have individual or group counseling with all the students who need it, how can we better serve those who may need a higher level of intervention?

Any institution at the end of the day is working overtime to keep students on campus.  Of course they care about students’ well-being. And yes, they also care about maintaining retention percentages.  Sometimes the work that’s being done in both areas can be rather siloed.  I can say this because I worked in the Office of Retention (titled differently) at two separate large universities. A lot of my efforts previously included doing everything I could to outreach to students who were academically struggling and support them in getting connected on campus.  The majority of the students I connected with were struggling academically as a product of mental health and substance use problems. As much as I would have rather preferred, the discussion was rarely centered on taking a break that semester and getting help.  The students I was working with were experiencing problems and pressures, not yet crisis.  The crisis didn’t hit until they were academically suspended.

For any of those students, my recommendation for a program or resource off campus was an out-of-bounds conversation.  Knowing how slammed Student Affairs professionals in general are on campus, ethically it would not have been appropriate to make a recommendation anyway. If we can predict that a young adult who proactively seeks treatment, when it’s not at crisis level yet, has a better chance of graduation due to stabilization and/or sobriety, what is stopping us from having this conversation right now?

Anytime I’ve spoken with a Director of Counseling or Director of Case Management, the conversation always consists of how to help the student while they’re still enrolled.  Any time I’ve suggested the conversation about it being a retention initiative to encourage students to take a break to get help early and then return, it’s almost like I knock the breath out of the person on the other end of the phone.  We’re all working extremely hard to help students when they’re a student on your campus.  How could it not be beneficial to support them in getting treatment earlier? How could it not benefit the university in terms of student’s returning to campus to graduate still within that 6-year cohort?  It’s a win-win for the student and the university.  

Now, if there is a college or university that uses IRB data to look at the students who take a leave for treatment (ie Medical Leave) earlier in their academic career versus later, I’d be fascinated to read those statistics.  To know whether or not students return, depending on the time they seek treatment could be predictive of the work we do in guiding students earlier in their academic career.  To my knowledge, this information isn’t being collected or reported by any institution, other than possibly in-house.  To better continue to support our young adults launching into adulthood on campus, this is an imperative conversation that needs to be broached now. 

In the end, we all care about the well-being of current college students.  What we know is that a lot of them are struggling and aren’t connected to resources on campus.  As an institution of higher education we need to ensure the minds of our young people are in a place to experience this learning.  If they choose to take a break for mental health treatment, we ought to explore encouraging them now before it is too late.  From a retention lens, I’m saying we need to encourage them to take a break now and return so they can be on track to graduate within that 6-year cohort.

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