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Colleges need to rethink mental health beliefs and policies

Colleges and universities have some work to do to be able to provide adequate support to students who have mental health diagnoses, according to a recently released Mental Health America study.

The report, Supporting College Students: Mental Health and Disability in Higher Education, found that there are significant barriers keeping students from accessing the disability accommodations they need on campus, including those for mental health diagnoses.

In fact, many don’t even know these accommodations exist, MHA said.

The organization defines mental health disabilities as those that “significantly impair a person's ability to meaningfully participate in their education.”

The report, which comes as college students begin heading back to campuses next week, found when students tried to access accommodations for their mental health, they faced several barriers including, “staff that were not knowledgeable about psychiatric disabilities, staff with discriminatory beliefs about mental health conditions, an unclear or burdensome documentation process, and, upon completing registration, negative responses or outright refusal of requested accommodations from professors.”

“In addition to barriers with staff and a complicated application process, students are also facing systemic hurdles like inadequate access to health insurance, a mental health provider workforce shortage, lack of diversity among mental health providers, and discrimination in the mental health system,” Kelly Davis, Associate Vice President of Peer and Youth Advocacy at MHA, said in a released statement. “All of these issues only make it harder for students to complete the necessary documentation to obtain accommodations.”

Specifically, MHA found that:

  • 7 in 10 survey respondents with mental health diagnoses were not registered for disability accommodations, but only 2 in 10 said they did not want them;

  • 70% of students surveyed said they wanted their college to provide more education on mental health disabilities and accommodations; and,

  • A third of students surveyed did not know mental health accommodations were available to them in college.

As our awareness around mental health increases, it’s interesting to see how it is challenging existing systems, including the expectations and demands placed on college students, to change.

To help educational institutions better support students with mental health challenges, MHA suggests partnering with students to better educate the entire campus - staff, administration, and professors - on mental health disabilities and accommodations; tapping the lived experience of students with disabilities to help train staff on appropriate accommodations; training professors on ways to accommodate students with mental health disabilities; and, creating alternatives to medical documentation of disabilities due overcome structural barriers such as the lack of health insurance or lack of diverse mental health professionals.

To learn more about the challenges and proposed solutions, request the full MHA report here.

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