Trustee Talk, Issue 11: Being Open to Discussing Mental Health Issues: The Board’s Role on College Campuses


How​ ​can​ ​Boards​ ​become​ ​leaders​ ​in​ ​stemming​ ​the​ ​mental​ ​health​ ​crisis and​ ​fulfilling​ ​their​ ​fiduciary​ ​responsibilities​ ​for​ ​the​ ​college​ ​community?


What are the responsibilities of the Board?

Rates of anxiety and depression among American college students have soared in the last decade, and many more students come to campus already on medication for such illnesses (Brown, October 2016). Left untreated, the growing numbers of students with mental illness portends havoc and disruption at colleges and in home and family life. Mental illness does impair academic success, quality of life, and the American workforce. There is a clear need for greater attention to this very serious problem and for increased resources for mental health services and programs on our college campuses (Wisconsin Hope Lab, 2016).

A long-time trustee speaks out

Former chair of ACCT, and a trustee at both a university (10 years) and a community college (35 years, 33 as a chair), George Little is also passionate about the mental health crisis on our campuses. Knowing in his home state of North Carolina that 82% of quarter million students are uninsured, he is most alarmed that many colleges are not doing much about it. He stresses the board’s liability. “If a college gets sued, it falls on the trustees. Every day we wait, we are exposing ourselves to great risk. The board of trustees and the president are exposed to a liability that could hurt the college financially and otherwise. We can no longer ignore this important issue.”

Boards have a responsibility to learn the facts about student mental health issues on their college campus and to learn more about any preventive practices and interventions in place. The more they know, the more the board can support the administration and college community in dealing with students’ mental health challenges.

Link between mental health and success

A useful resource for trustees is NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. Supported by corporate and foundation supporters since 1979 and today an association of hundreds of local affiliates, state organizations and volunteers who work in local communities to raise awareness and provide education that was not previously available to those in need, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) contains a downloadable fact sheet library and connects to each state’s local NAMI and affiliates. Their online site also provides guidance on managing a mental health condition in college.

More than ever before, colleges are aware of students’ mental health needs and the link between mental health and academic success (National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), September 2017). Current research findings indicate clearly that students who reported anxiety and psychological distress also reported lower grades, incomplete assignments, and dropping out. In March 2016, with support from ACCT, Single Stop and The Healthy Minds Network, Wisconsin’s Hope Lab published a report, “Too Distressed to Learn? Mental Health Among Community College Students” and noted that their study of 10 community colleges across the nation revealed that half (49%) of the more than 4,000 students surveyed “are experiencing a current or recent mental health condition.”

These conditions included: depression (~36%), anxiety (~29%), suicide ideation in the past year (11%), eating disorders (~10%), and non-suicidal self-injury (~15%). They also noted that mental health conditions seem to be more prevalent among students 25 and younger when compared to older students (56% to 42%) and that there were few gender differences in these conditions except for eating disorders (6% of males and 13% of females). In a spring 2014 National College Health Assessment, 33% of students surveyed felt so depressed in the past year that it was difficult for them to function; 55% reported overwhelming anxiety, and 87% reported feeling overwhelmed by their responsibilities (Holterman, 2016).

What is different today than in the past?

The National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that 1 in 5 adults in America experience a mental illness, and 60% of those with a mental illness did not receive treatment. Over 69% of college counseling centers directors have seen an increase in student mental health crises requiring an immediate response (Patel, 2015). Both NAMI and the National Council on Disability (NCD) encourage college leaders to bring the issues of student mental illness out of the dark. “By openly discussing mental health issues and supports, college leaders create a culture where these discussions are the norm.”

Social media can contribute to student stress

Despite that mental illness is becoming less of a stigma today, some researchers report that the rising demand comes from students ill-equipped emotionally to deal with the stresses of grades, relationships, breakups, pressure to do well, plus financial strain (Wilson, 2016). Social media has been identified as one of the leading causes of increased awareness and causation of exacerbating mental health issues in students. With instant, ubiquitous news and personal contact via social media, cyberbullying, anxiety, and depression are on the rise.

According to the National Council on Disability’s July 2017 report, Mental Health on College Campuses, many community colleges across the country are seeing increased student reports of panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, stress and depression, with many students citing social media as a catalyst. According to Dr. Nance Roy, clinical director of the Jed Foundation in New York, an organization that works to prevent suicide among college students, social media, combined with preexisting stigma, plays a part in students’ mental well-being.

What are the questions that Board members should ask?

Many trustees agree that student mental illness needs to be taken out of the dark. Boards can do this by asking key questions:

  • What mental health education and services are available to students? Is there a mental health student guide on campus?
  • Are there significant mental health services in the community available to students?
  • What is the extent of any mental health services professional development or training on campus for faculty and staff?
  • What are the facts about the incidences of mental illness on our campus?
  • What is the college’s responsibility to its students and its liability?
  • Is the college prepared if something goes wrong?

Boards should find out if mental health services on campus and/or in the community, if they exist, are over- or underutilized. Over utilization may indicate a need for additional resources; underutilization may indicate a lack of awareness. The administration should ascertain if either of these conditions exists and help keep the Board informed.

A Wisconsin trustee’s passion

Vernon Jung, Central Regional Chair on the ACCT Board of Trustees and trustee for 20 years at Moraine Park Technical College in Wisconsin, says that student mental health is his passion. He is very aware that one in every 12 U.S. college students makes a suicide plan (USA  Today, 2017) and that many students do not get the help they need. “I am so proud of my fellow trustees and president who are getting the word out. What we are doing for veterans is what we should do for all our students. We’re saving lives,” states Jung.

As an engineer and owner of an engineering firm, Jung takes a practical look at the mental health issues. “Mental health is such a huge part of student success. Some colleges are using software that tracks students and encourages a follow-up contact so that a counselor can check in with a student and provide that one-to-one direct contact to get them help or direct them to get help.”

Nationally more young adults die from suicide than from all medical illnesses combined (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 2017)1. Reflecting when he saw from an ACCT/Wisconsin Hope Lab study of 4,000 community college students that 56% of community college students age 25 and younger reported a mental health condition (from depression, anxiety, suicide, self-injury and eating disorder) compared to 46% at four-year colleges and universities (p. 9), Jung became passionate about helping students with mental illness. He states, “If we do not do this because it is the right thing to do, we need to do for economic development. We need a producing workforce. We must save our resources down the road. We must open our eyes and openly address these issues, and I am proud that my fellow trustees are also concerned. We can save lives through this work. I see things changing.”

What are some community colleges doing? What are the precautions colleges and states are taking?

College counseling centers: Several colleges are adding a mental health session to new student orientations.

Targeted presentations: In 2015, a new Texas law (Senate Bill 1624) began requiring public college to show a live presentation or video to new students about suicide prevention and mental health support. (The Daily Texan, Bill requiring mental, suicide prevention resources at Texas university orientations goes into effect, June 2015).

Task Forces: Colleges and universities have created campus task forces of students and staff to focus on student mental health issues. Some of these have created videos of students talking about difficult life events experienced by friends. Some campuses also have teams to assess and provide support to students who demonstrate signs of distress leading to concerns.

Professional development: Training is essential to prepare staff and faculty to deal effectively when responding to those in the grip of psychological crises. (Howard, 2016)

Community Partnerships: Some colleges, such as Santa Rose Junior College, CA, have agreements with a county-based team of licensed clinicians to be summoned when, for example, a student suffers a breakdown. Such partnerships with clinical professions and other medical and security services may prove beneficial in critical circumstances.

Using licensed interns: MiraCosta College, CA, has turned to hiring one part-time licensed therapist and using unpaid volunteers who need clinical hours before becoming licensed by the state. (Patel, 2016)

Peer Educators: Some colleges use students to give presentations across campus, knowing that student might be more receptive if the information and hotlines came from their peers. NAMI also publishes several infographic student guides for how to help a friend.

Following are guidelines for boards to consider:

  1. First and foremost, make sure the president and college administration, stay well-informed about enactment of laws and new guidelines by your state legislature. Don’t be caught off guard.
  2. Promote campus dialogue from all constituents—students, staff, faculty, and administrators and the community.

The administration should assure the Board that mental health resources are well-advertised on campus.

  1. Discuss financial implications and assess risk and manage threats.

There are different viewpoints about the costs of implementing appropriate mental health services. Make sure the administration is well informed.

Governing boards and administrations have a responsibility to safeguard their institutions. It is important to ensure the administration reviews and assesses college health policies for consistency and compliance with federal and state laws.

1 The suicide rate of college students is 7.5 per 100,000, as compiled from proceedings from an Expert Panel on Vulnerability, Depressive Symptoms and Suicidal Behavior on College Campuses, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 2016.

Disclaimer: This newsletter is offered for general informational purposes only. It is not offered as and does not constitute legal advice

Do YOU have a Question for us? Email your question to: Norma Goldstein