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Supporting the whole student

This week, Alan Leshner [former chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, the publisher of Science)] wrote an editorial on the urgent need to rethink mental health support for students at U.S. universities. His call to get the whole institution involved in supporting the whole student reflects recommendations just released by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). The proposal is commendable, is logical, and will be embraced by many. But the big question is, what are universities willing to do to solve this crisis?

I’ve seen firsthand how universities generally try to tackle this issue. As an administrator at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at Washington University, I hired more mental health counselors every year in response to growing student need—and every year, it wasn’t enough because the demand always outpaced what the university could accommodate.   

The NASEM report asserts that responding to the problem episodically by simply adding more counselors is not the answer, but up until now, that has been the only response. Here’s how it plays out among university trustees:  Students concerned about their well-being are invited to meet with a committee of the board of trustees. The students give heartfelt and highly justified testimonials about their frustration in getting counseling appointments and tell harrowing stories of friends in crisis. The trustees become indignant and scold the administrators for not providing enough counselors. The administrators agree to hire more, but in the next room, another committee is meeting about why the university is not doing better in the U.S. News & World Report “best” rankings, and what to do about it. In yet another room, another committee is lamenting the fact that university research is not mentioned more frequently in national newspapers. And so on. As long as the need for mental health counseling is riding alongside other demands, universities will always choose an episodic approach at best. Reorienting the university to support the whole student will require resources and attention that have to take away from some other university priorities. If faculty and administrators are going to be better trained and available to devote more attention to student well-being, they will be devoting less effort to other concerns.

The university that successfully addresses the student mental health crisis will be the one that has the courage to worry less about how the university is perceived from the outside and more about how it is perceived from the inside. University administrators and boards should read the NASEM report and consider it carefully. Instead of continuing a cycle of sporadically dispatching the student affairs staff to hire more counselors, trustees should let administrators know what sacrifices are acceptable to achieve a whole institution–whole student approach. Such a shift could give universities a chance to live up to those smiling faces in the brochures.