Did You Know? COVID-19 Relief Funds and Campus Mental Health

Did you know that the U.S. Department of Education is encouraging colleges and universities to use their COVID-19 relief funds for student mental health programs?

Over the past two years, there has been a major uptick of concern about mental health on college and university campuses, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and its continuing repercussions. Widely referred to as a “mental health crisis,” the struggles of students, faculty, and staff have come to the attention of college and university leadership.

Colleges and universities can use their COVID-19 relief funds toward supporting mental health on campus.This “crisis” has now reached the ear of the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), which recently released guidance explaining how colleges and universities can use their COVID-19 relief funds towards supporting mental health on campus.

These relief funds stem from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund III (HEERF III) which is authorized by the American Rescue Plan. Together, these pieces of legislation have appropriated just under $40 billion for higher education institutions. The HEERF III website states that the funds are intended to “serve students and ensure learning continues during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The DOE suggests that one of the best ways to “serve students and ensure learning continues” is to support students’ and employees’ mental health. This is made clear in the aforementioned guidance, where the DOE makes numerous recommendations for how the funds can be used to benefit campus communities.

Some of these suggestions include creating crisis hotlines, instituting suicide-prevention programs, and using the funding to support students’ basic needs (e.g., food and housing), under the belief that a lack of necessities is often associated with poor mental health.

DOE provides specific examples of how institutions can use the HEERF III money:

  • Hire counselors, social workers, and other mental health staff; establish in-person mental health care for both students and faculty and staff.

  • Provide campus-hired counselors or other mental health professionals to provide 24/7 telehealth services to students and faculty and staff.

  • Offer gatekeeper or suicide prevention training (both types of training teach people how to identify those at risk of suicide) to people on campus, for example Resident Assistants (RAs), dining staff, professors, and students.

  • Create a call and/or text hotline for at-risk students to call or text during mental health concerns.

It is no secret that colleges and universities are struggling financially due to the impact of COVID-19. Yet, rather than using HEERF III funds to dig themselves out of COVID-related financial holes, institutions are being encouraged by the DOE to spend more on mental health supports that are already available.

Resources such as crisis and suicide-prevention hotlines already exist, just without the school logos.Resources such as crisis and suicide-prevention hotlines, programs that provide care for mental health issues, telehealth programs, and numerous organizations providing support for basic needs already exist, just without the school logos. Indeed, the DOE’s guidance mentions some of these existing programs at the bottom of the document.

If anything, schools should partner with these already existing programs. Spending money to create their own seems redundant when the funds would have a greater impact in other areas.

Colleges and universities need to wake up to the realization that meeting every single need a student, professor, or staff member may have is unrealistic, not to mention extremely expensive. Schools should not follow the trend of fulfilling every expectation at the expense of creating and providing high-quality, well-rounded education.

Ashlynn Warta is the state reporter at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.