Addressing Student Mental Health Issues – On a Budget

by Anne E. Lundquist

I was very interested in the article by Kristen Domonell that appeared in University Business on March 19.  In this article, she emphasized that, in an era of increasing numbers of students with significant psychological disabilities and serious mental issues, colleges and universities are being forced to “do more with less” because of the escalating financial pressures occurring on many campuses at the same time. Domonell outlined strategies that some counseling centers are employing to address these issues and concerns.

Data from the 2012 National Counseling Center Directors (NCCD) Survey confirms this pressure to meet demand:

  • 92% of the respondents report that the number of students seeking help at their centers has been increasing in recent years.
  • 88% of directors state that the increased demand for services, along with the increase in clients with more serious psychological problems, has posed staffing problems for them.

Yet I think it is important to emphasize that many institutions are in a position to build on other resources that they already have in place in other areas of their operations to help to accomplish these same goals, to serve the best interests of all students. You don’t always need to put some completely new and different approach in place. You can often achieve the positive outcomes you need by simply using the expertise you already have to think creatively and test and tweak your existing policies, procedures and practices.

Examples of What You Can Do

You need to take a proactive, holistic, integrated and collaborative approach that involves key administrators, staff and faculty who are willing to spend the time to do what is necessary to accomplish this.

Here are some specific things I believe can be done by using existing staff and resources to achieve results of which you can be proud:

Hold conversations and develop relationships across silos.
Too often, administrators and staff – especially at large institutions – rely on the ability to do their job within the comfort and confines of their own operating unit or silo.  But what they may not recognize is that the most troubling and difficult situations, including those that pose the greatest risk, may touch numerous units and silos without those in one knowing – or thinking to inquire about – what is happening in another.  This is precisely what allowed the tragedy to happen at Virginia Tech.  Having existing relationships and a better understanding of what may go on in other units that can directly impact what occurs in your own silo is crucial to protecting the best interests of your students, faculty, staff and the institution itself.  Build these relationships in times of calm so that you can put them to work in times of crisis.

Develop tabletop simulations.
One especially proactive strategy to improve coordination with other operating units is to develop and use simulations that demonstrate how diversely a challenging scenario can play out -- and how all units contribute, either intentionally or unintentionally, to the outcome. I have watched as members of a particular unit have literally gasped as they watched and became aware of how a troubled student had interacted with other units during a simulated scenario and how much the outcome of what occurred was impacted by events of which they were not aware.  These exercises also provide an opportunity for your institution to test in a controlled manner the application, use and effectiveness of your policies, protocols and procedures.  It is extremely important to determine that such practices are lacking in some way or are shown to be insufficient or ineffective in a deliberative, controlled circumstance rather than discover this during a real crisis situation.

Educate faculty about how to recognize various situations and respond appropriately.
The NCCD Survey indicates that 67% of counseling centers have increased the amount of time in training faculty and others to respond helpfully to students in trouble and to make appropriate referrals. Because of their focus on teaching and research, faculty members are often not as up to date on the warning signals for students in distress. It is important to provide workshops and information not only to ensure that they can recognize a student of concern, but also that they know how to refer that student. Students often trust their faculty members more than others on campus and it may be that a faculty member or advisor is the first person to whom a student may disclose concerns. Faculty need to feel empowered to report changes in behavior or attendance patterns or troublesome writing in an assignment. Sometimes, these can be the clues and missing pieces necessary to put together the correct picture of a student in trouble.

Implement alternative student conduct/disciplinary protocols and procedures that address the needs of students with certain disabilities.
There are “reasonable” adjustments or accommodations that can be made to your disciplinary process in keeping with the Office for Civil Rights’ statement in its compliance letter to Woodbury University that “disability is pertinent to whether there are grounds to mitigate the penalty.”  Certain disabilities, such as Aspergher’s, Highly Functioning Autism, TBI, anxiety disorders, OCD and others, may particularly benefit from accommodations or an alternative disciplinary process.  This process can be modified at several points, starting with the response to the incident through the imposition of sanctions.  Also, creative disciplinary processes that are good for all students can be particularly effective for students with certain disabilities.  Three of these are community standards, restorative justice and mediation.  I am especially surprised that more institutions are not using restorative justice models in view of the very positive benefits it has been shown to bring to the table.


A small but growing number of colleges and universities have been adopting restorative justice (RJ) processes as an alternative (in some cases) to traditional, sanctions-focused student conduct proceedings.

Taking an RJ approach requires a philosophical shift for the student conduct office – it entails new sets of questions for student conduct hearings and an alert ear for cases in which there is the possibility to restore harm that’s been done, rather than simply (or only) penalize.

Learn more in this February 2012 article from Academic Impressions.

Looking Forward

A piece of good news from the NCCD Survey is that 89% of directors report that higher administrators on their campus have a growing awareness of the problems counseling centers are facing in terms of the increased demand for services and the growing complexity of problems students bring. In some instances, this can and will translate into increased resources, so that an institution can, for example, consider:

  • Hiring a Case Manager to coordinate resources and appropriate responses to a student who poses a concern.
  • Providing additional staff in the counseling center, student affairs, and campus police.
  • Offering more professional development regarding student concerns for faculty and staff.
  • Gathering the support required to develop and implement effective behavioral intervention teams.

But, even without more resources, every institution can still take positive steps toward developing policies and practices that will enable them to respond effectively to a wide variety of student concerns -- and to do so in a manner that is in the best interest of both the students and the institution.