Students’ Access, Satisfaction with UConn Mental Health Services Significantly Improved Since Task Force’s Launch

'A caring community is the foundation for student success'

Aerial (drone) view of the large letter UConn Sign on Oct. 15, 2019.

(Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Students are increasingly satisfied with UConn’s on-campus mental health services, more likely to return again, and would more often recommend them to others in the time since the University launched the President’s Task Force on Mental Health and Wellness three years ago.

Students can also get appointments more quickly, have more access to after-hours services, and are more often keeping or regaining their good academic standing on the path to graduation, according to an update recently presented to the Board of Trustees on the task force’s progress in evaluating and enhancing support for student mental health and well-being.

While trustees and other UConn officials say the work is never finished in this important area of student life, the new findings make them optimistic that the University is heading in the right direction by collectively caring for its students’ mental health needs.

Students have also expressed positive feelings in response to satisfaction surveys that UConn Student Health and Wellness (SHaW) Mental Health regularly distributes, with one saying it has “helped me focus more on school and reflect positively on myself.” Another praised the individual therapy: “Having someone to talk to and look forward to meeting with has helped me get through each week.”

The update to trustees also included discussion about the road ahead, including finding ways for UConn SHaW to expand access to care on the regional campuses in Hartford, Avery Point, Stamford, and Waterbury.

“One of the task force’s most important conclusions is that a caring community is the foundation for student success. That includes not only access to professional care through SHaW Mental Health when needed, but also the support of all our UConn faculty and staff, who care so much about our students’ well-being,” says Anne D’Alleva, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs. “We can’t expect our students to succeed academically and thrive at UConn without this foundation.”

UConn formed the mental health task force after students shared their experiences and the importance of mental health and their challenges at the Board of Trustees meeting in February 2020.

Although UConn had invested in mental health services in the few years ahead of that discussion, it soon became evident to trustees and others that a deeper review and more investment was required to meet the needs.

“We truly listened and out of that came a lot of planning and discussion on how we can best align our services to serve our students’ needs,” Shari Cantor, a member of the Board of Trustees and vice-chair of its Student Life Committee, said when introducing the presentation at the recent meeting.

The task force also closely considered the intersection between academic success and mental health, recognizing that they strongly affect each other given the stress of busy class schedules, exams, and career planning.

“We recognize that in addition to the formative years that our students will spend at UConn, they are our Huskies forever and that the care we extend to them here positions them to successfully move on to the next steps of their lives not just professionally, but also emotionally,” says UConn SHaW Mental Health Director Kristina Stevens.

In the time since the task force’s report was finalized and recommendations have been going into effect, SHaW has expanded its staff with additional clinicians, including multicultural clinical specialists to enhance the delivery of culturally informed care to diverse populations on UConn’s campuses.

In the coming year, as a result of the Task Force recommendations, SHaW also will blend new fee-generated revenue with institutional funding to hire four more mental health clinicians. UConn will also fund through the fee generated revenue, three additional case workers in the Office of Student Care and Concern.

Additional updates presented at the recent Board of Trustees meeting included:

• SHaW Mental Health experienced a 51% increase in mental health screenings for students and 86% increase in after-hours requests for help between 2019 and 2021. And with that growth in demand, it was able to decrease students’ wait time by 28% between their initial call and first appointment.

• Enhanced collaboration between UConn University Safety, clinicians, and community partners resulted in timely access to essential and appropriate care in response to crisis calls.

• When the students’ issues were severe enough to need ongoing intervention through the Student Care Team, those students were more likely than before to stay in school, keep or regain their good academic standing, and go on to graduation.

• In many cases, concerned faculty members have been the first to recognize students’ signs of distress, even on screen when the pandemic forced UConn to move to fully remote classes. Those faculty members’ referrals over the past few years to the Student Care Team helped scores of students get help that they might not have realized was available, task force members and others say.

• Although SHaW Mental Health services are available to all students, graduate students in master’s and Ph.D. programs comprised about 15% of the patients. Looking ahead, UConn is reviewing ways to enhance services to graduate students, including additional group therapy options and other programs specifically geared toward those students and the unique stressors they face.

The COVID pandemic added impetus to the task force’s work, both as current UConn students experienced mental health stressors and as new students, whose final years of high school occurred under the pandemic’s cloud, dealt with those lingering stressors plus the transition to college.

An American College Health Association (ACHA) 2021 survey indicated that across all UConn campuses, students reported a rise in stress, anxiety, depression, and difficulty sleeping in the past few years.

The trends aren’t limited to UConn. Nationally, surveys have found significant increases in anxiety and depression among college students that started even before the COVID pandemic, but were exacerbated by those circumstances.

SHaW Mental Health offers a range of services such as individual and group therapy, crisis support, clinical case management and medication services, self-care programs such as yoga and mindfulness workshops, and Let’s Talk, an informal, confidential consultation with a clinician.

Through the Be Well UConn service, students have access to a licensed clinician around the clock, any day of the year – including between semesters and over summer break – and from anywhere around the world.

UConn, SHaW Mental Health, UConn Suicide Prevention Committee, and others also work with students and community groups on special initiatives throughout the year, such as the upcoming Fresh Check Day events at Storrs and each regional campus in coming weeks as well as programming for Suicide Prevention Week each fall.

The annual events bring partners together from across the University community to provide engaging and empowering activities focused on mental health support, demonstrating its commitment to making student mental health and wellbeing an institutional priority.