Finding Mental Health Support on Campus

By Julie Halpert, ’84

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Read time: 11 minutes
The University is rolling out a sweeping new initiative to address student mental health struggles holistically.
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Katie Good, a 20-year-old U-M junior, has felt the pressure to be involved in many activities on campus in addition to taking a rigorous class load. Co-director of the University’s Active Minds chapter, which seeks to eliminate stigma and support student mental health needs, she writes for a school magazine and works in a lab on campus. She barely has time to eat.

“There’s definitely this pressure that we’re not doing enough, but even what we’re doing right now is too much,” says Good, who is majoring in biopsychology, cognition, and neuroscience. She was seeing a therapist outside the University who suggested she see a psychiatrist at U-M’s Eisenberg Family Depression Center. But she had to wait three months to get an appointment.

The University, she says, “is doing as much as they possibly can, but there’s so many students and so many of us that need help.”

The demand for mental health services at the University continues to remain high, part of a national trend across college campuses. According to the winter/spring 2021 Healthy Minds study, which surveyed 103,748 students at 400 colleges and universities, 41% experienced depression.

With the goal of expanding the range of mental health services to students and cultivating a long-lasting culture of well-being, Susan M. Collins, U-M provost, and Martino Harmon, vice president for student life, launched the Student Mental Health Innovative Approaches Review Committee in spring 2021. Comprising 12 members, including faculty members and representatives focused on mental health and well-being, the committee held 41 town halls and received feedback from more than 500 individuals.

In August, the committee issued a series of recommendations that focus on prevention and represent a sea change in the way the University responds to mental health. Harmon explained that previous efforts to address student mental health were primarily focused on adding more counselors to Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). “But the demand is such that we needed to take a more diversified, holistic, institutional approach,” he says.

Todd Sevig, the director of CAPS and a member of the committee, says that adding staffing to CAPS is important—but not enough. “We need a culture change,” he says, that examines all aspects that influence student mental health and well-being. Laura Blake Jones, dean of students and committee co-chair, says this includes ensuring that each student is supported by a safe place to live, nutritious food, access to fitness facilities and counseling, and faculty members who care about them, along with support when something goes wrong. “We have to think across that whole continuum.”

Brandon Bond, ’20, a 23-year-old first-generation graduate student in the School of Public Health and Social Work, has felt the mental health impact from the combined stresses of racism, the murders of Black individuals, COVID-19, and the political unease of the country. These stressors led to anxiety and a decline in motivation. Compounding the problem were the limitations imposed by pandemic on his social support access.

“There was a point where I just lay in bed and instead of worrying about classes and exams, I worried about the safety of myself, family, and friends,” he says. He was plagued by the thought that “I could literally be doing everything ‘right’ in my life and still be taken out for no reason.” As a U-M undergraduate student, Bond served in several leadership positions and worked as many as five jobs in addition to taking a full class load to graduate with minimal debt. Since students don’t receive paid sick leave, he felt he couldn’t risk missing work even when sick.

MEETING THE DEMAND

In 2020, the University’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) pivoted to serve students in a virtual format due to COVID-19. Compared with 2019, there was an 18% increase in demand for services. During the first five weeks of this academic year, there was a 51% increase over the same period last year, according to a fall 2021 CAPS report, with 1,724 requests for services by students.

“That is huge,” says Todd Sevig, the director of CAPS. “No one expected that.”

CAPS is the first point of contact for many students who are struggling. Over the last five years, U-M has added 18 counselors, including an embedded counselor in 18 of 19 schools and colleges, which provides easier access for both students and for faculty who are trying to assist them in navigating mental health resources.

Responding to a recommendation from the Student Mental Health Innovative Approaches Review Committee this fall, five initial access specialists were hired to work with students. They’re dedicated solely to the initial appointment so students can get seen in a timely manner, Sevig said. Currently, 38 peer support groups are run through CAPS; this fall, CAPS rolled out an online peer support network that operates 24/7 called Togetherall.

As a wellness coach at U-M’s Wolverine Wellness program, which fosters overall student wellness, Bond supports the University’s new commitment to becoming a health-promoting university. But he is reserving final judgment until he sees the actions that are implemented and “challenges U-M to address internal disparities and execute this initiative through an equity lens.”

Like Bond, students are experiencing many stressors that are fueling the surge in demand for mental health services.

The first is the reduction of stigma, leading to more help-seeking; Sevig sees that as a positive development. “We want students who are struggling to reach out for help early and often, because the earlier an intervention can be made, the better the outcome.”

Mary Jo Desprez, director of Wolverine Wellness, sees social media as a major contributor that fuels feelings of inadequacy by bombarding young people continually with “perfect photoshopped images.” Good agreed. “You really think, ‘I’m not doing enough to be the best version of myself’ because of what we see on social media.” She adds that it perpetuates feelings of isolation and alienation.

COVID-19 added another toxic layer; 21% of students seeking help from CAPS responded that it was related to mental health impacts of the pandemic, according to a fall 2021 CAPS report. Sevig says that the last year and a half, when students may have been alone or with only their parents, has been a traumatic experience for students and returning to campus hasn’t always been easy. “You can’t just flip the switch and then all of a sudden be back on campus and everything’s great.”

Good felt the impacts profoundly. “You’re just alone in your room and then you turn off the camera, and you’re completely alone. It never really felt like I was making relationships.” She adds that, with some classes still online, forming new bonds and connections with professors and students remains challenging.

Among the committee’s recommendations are more resources for faculty to help them better support students during their challenging times, which faculty had requested, says Amy Dittmar, senior vice provost of academic and budgetary affairs and committee co-chair. She ranked the addition of wellness coaches as among the changes with the most impact. These are staff and graduate students who provide one-on-one coaching to help students navigate issues like anxiety around their social environment—where students “are not in a dire situation and just need help figuring things out.” Desprez, who was on the committee and oversees the wellness coaches, says they’re a key component of a holistic model focused on prevention.

The committee will also explore ways to reduce sources of academic stress. This includes expanding the pass/fail option so that students can decide at any point in the semester to take a class pass/fail instead of for a grade—a policy that LSA and some other schools and colleges have already adopted—and finding ways to alleviate the pressure caused by large introductory classes.

Another element of the committee’s work was recommending the adoption in September 2021 of the Okanagan Charter, which commits to promoting health and well-being on campus. U-M is one of seven universities that have adopted the charter. Endorsing this larger infrastructure, Desprez said, “allows the University to develop a sustainable infrastructure to solve these complex problems.”

Making sure students know of available mental health resources and have easy access to them is another key element, which Jones believes will be extremely helpful. She’s particularly excited about a digital tool in development that will point students to resources in real time. Good said she wasn’t aware that the Depression Center existed until she spoke with her therapist. “Bringing awareness to those support groups and those resources is really important,” she says.

“I’m overjoyed and excited about all of the recommendations and the energy and the support for this,” says Sevig, adding that a mental health initiative of this scope is rarely seen at other colleges and universities. “To do this coming out of the pandemic, given all the budget needs, this is just amazing.”

A real strength embedded in the recommendations is that they provide a menu of options with multiple kinds of support that students can choose from based on their needs, he says.

Desprez feels the recommenda­tions hold particular weight since they were developed with student input. “We are doing this with students and not for them or to them,” she said.

Grace Martin, a 19-year-old sophomore who is the fundraising chair of the U-M chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, says, “I greatly appreciate the fact that the University is beginning to recognize the need to approach mental health holistically.” She endorses the focus on developing a stronger relationship between Student Life and Academic Affairs “to begin to break down the toxic stress culture that is so prevalent on campus.”

Another proponent of the University’s new holistic approach is Cheryl King, a clinical psychologist and professor in the U-M Department of Psychiatry. King was the lead author of a pivotal study, “Association of the Youth-Nominated Support Team Intervention for Suicidal Adolescents With 11- to 14-Year Mortality Outcomes,” which had adolescents at high risk for suicide nominate four caring adults who would be trained in how to support them. Following the teens for a decade, the study found that those with the supportive young adults in their lives were seven times less likely to die. King endorses the University’s holistic approach for focusing on prevention, as her study did, while fostering a culture of caring and compassion that represents a “paradigm shift.”

RACKHAM STUDY

Before the Student Mental Health Innovative Approaches Review Committee began its work, Mike Solomon, dean of the Rackham Graduate School, initiated an effort to address the mental health of graduate students. The Graduate Student Mental Health Task Force launched in 2019 and released a September 2021 report on 10 ways to better support graduate students.

Graduate students have faced their own, unique set of stressors, says Sara Abelson, a member of the Rackham committee and a doctoral candidate in public health. A July 2021 study indicated that roughly a quarter of doctoral students show clinically significant symptoms of depression.

Meghan Duffy, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and the task force’s chair, heads a 16-person lab and has witnessed the struggles firsthand, some of which are prompted by toxic relationships with mentors.

“We needed to be addressing larger systemic issues that are also influencing that student mental health,” she says. Solomon accepted all of the recommendations in the report, including developing mentoring plans and contemplating changes to leave policies so students won’t be penalized if they need to take a shorter leave due to factors like mental health struggles.

“Rackham’s been all in on our recommendations, and that’s been really rewarding to see,” Duffy says. The graduate school has created a new standing committee focused on graduate student mental health and is also working with the University’s broader mental health committee. Acknowledging that institutional change is hard, Abelson said she has been impressed by the efforts of a variety of parties in the University in advocating for student mental health.

“What they’re trying to do is actually not just tweak what we have for health care and mental health services on campuses. They’re trying to actually transform them,” she said. She said this approach could lead to a campus climate that is health-oriented, reduces discrimination, and doesn’t stigmatize those who have different types of views. On campuses where there is more tolerance, she says, “there’s better well-being. There’s less bullying.”

Eight work teams are beginning to meet to implement the recommendations of the mental health committee. Sevig expects it will take roughly a year to adopt them all. He’s optimistic that this holistic approach will lead to an atmosphere on campus where students who are struggling can find the resources they need.

Harmon says, “I have no doubt that the progress that this committee is making will positively impact generations of U-M students to come.”


Julie Halpert, ’84, is an award-winning freelance journalist with more than three decades of experience writing for many national publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, and AARP.

Garrett’s Story

My son, Garrett, was bright and an incredible athlete—one of the top-ranked tennis players in the state of Michigan for his class. He was surrounded by loyal friends. He savored life’s pleasures to the fullest, whether it was yoga, salsa dancing lessons, or skydiving on his 21st birthday. He had a giant heart and dedicated himself to helping others, especially those who were struggling. Those who knew him felt blessed because he truly listened and cared. Like my husband, Scott, and me, he attended U-M, graduating in 2016.

This should sound like a recipe for happiness, but Garrett struggled. His big heart also made him feel pain more deeply. Ultimately, he lost hope that he could ever feel better. On Sept. 7, 2017, our 31st wedding anniversary, we lost our precious son to suicide when he was 23 years old.

His suicide is part of a dangerous trend; it is the second-leading cause of death for those ages 10 to 24. The pandemic has added to the feelings of loneliness and isolation. A survey of 18- to 24-year-olds taken by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the pandemic showed that 25% had seriously considered suicide during the prior 30 days.

As Scott and I grappled with this tragedy, we were intent on finding a way to honor Garrett’s goodness. During the times when Garrett struggled, we witnessed the large gaps in support for young adults with significant mental health challenges. We launched Garrett’s Space to help fill those gaps and provide new, supportive care options. Many of these individuals need more than once- or twice-a-week visits to their therapist but aren’t in need of emergency services at a hospital.

Our long-term vision is to create a holistically focused residential center, a place to heal for young adults facing significant mental health challenges. We plan to create a retreat-like setting with healing activities as well as individual and group therapy, peer support, and strategies to cope with broken relationships—often a trigger for suicide. We believe that if our son had been able to visit a place like this, he could have connected with others experiencing similar struggles, seen that he was not alone, and found hope to persevere.

We have an all-star team of mental health experts, and some faculty members of U-M’s Eisenberg Family Depression Center have been involved in a variety of ways. With the help of these individuals, we hope to make our programming and the residential center a model that can be replicated across the country.

Because it will take more time to establish the center, last April we launched a free wellness program for struggling young adults. Participants meet twice a week for a mood and movement class and a support group with peers and informal connection activity.

Four years later, my grief is still fresh. But my work with Garrett’s Space has given me a way forward. I’m confident that our nonprofit will provide a beacon of hope for many and spare other parents from having to endure our unimaginable loss. —Julie Halpert, ’84

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