'You retain one student, that investment has paid for itself,' says mental health expert

How some schools are scaling up services

Colleges that invest in student mental health services recoup their costs, according to a study from the RAND Corporation.

The think tank looked at California's public institutions and found additional mental health treatment will result in about $45 million in higher persistence rates and higher lifetime earnings.

"You don’t have to be an economist to realize that if you hire a counselor at $50,000 a year, and tuition is $60,000, and you retain one student, that investment has paid for itself," says Greg Eells, Cornell University's director of counseling and psychological services.

Increasingly, mental health is a priority on campus. The University of California system has plans to hire 85 new clinicians and Ohio State University has plans to add up to 10 additional counselors, according to Eells.

Nearly one in seven college students has been treated or diagnosed with anxiety within the past year, according to the American College Health Association's annual survey. Of student clients on campus, half received counseling before they arrived at college, a third have taken psychiatric medication, and a quarter have hurt themselves, according to a report from researchers at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) who tracked campus counseling centers for six years.

Colleges' mental health resources have been put to the test—and stretched. Now, more administrators are awarding resources to bulk up services.

Sometimes that decision is pushed along by student activists. At Skidmore College, students circulated a petition and held demonstrations in support of more mental health resources. The school, however, was already working on hiring another counselor and creating a 24-hour hotline, says President Phil Glotzbach.

Study: Mental health care contributed to increase in graduation rates

The administration does not plan to follow every student request though. "We believe doing exactly what these students have asked for  would be counterproductive," he says.

For example, the petition requested 24-hour counseling, but an "emergency-like" response to non-emergency issues can compound anxiety, says Julia Routbort, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate dean of student affairs for health and wellness.

"We want them to be able to absorb the distress, tolerate it, and metabolize it into something that is useful and productive," says Routbort (Zalaznick, University Business, accessed 5/24).

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