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How universities are addressing ongoing collegiate mental health difficulties

Growing numbers of students report that anxiety and depression are impacting their academic performance.

Northeastern University student Pooja Srinivasan is vice chair for the Boston Intercollegiate Government, which helped ensure that college students could take free mental health days when needed.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

When Sofia Farrés, 20, started as a freshman at Emerson College two years ago, she found it difficult — as someone who is immunocompromised — to live in campus housing.

“I was self-isolating more than most of my friends,” said Farrés. “The pandemic contributed a lot to my social anxiety.”

Adjusting to college has always been a challenge for freshmen, but it has become harder since the pandemic.

The confluence of financial hardship, health complications, academic burnout, and the loss of loved ones has taken a toll on undergraduates. According to the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment, 37 and 28 percent of college-aged participants reported that anxiety and depression, respectively, affected their academic performance, up from 28 and 20 percent in 2019.

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In response, schools have taken more active measures to meet the growing demand for comprehensive mental health services. They have expanded free-of-charge counseling, granted students mental health days off, worked more closely with student leadership and clubs, and tapped cultural and spiritual organizations to provide culturally appropriate support.

As early as 2019, Northeastern University had already begun to improve its services by launching Find @Northeastern, a free service that offers unlimited mental health counseling and support to students in Boston and abroad. After the pandemic, Northeastern made mental health care more accessible by offering daily walk-in hours when clinicians are available to meet with students without an appointment.

Many schools have also expanded their use of telehealth.

Regina Ashley, 20, a student at Emerson College, said this is helpful for students who feel more comfortable receiving support over the phone or Zoom.

Though many institutions offer mental health programming, the misconception among undergraduates that these services are financially unattainable keeps some students from using them, school administrators said.

To ensure that Harvard students are not deterred from seeking help, all mental health services there are covered by the student health fee, said Dr. Barbara Lewis, chief of Counseling and Mental Health Services. The same holds true at Boston University, Emerson, and many other area schools.

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At Northeastern University, insurance is “completely removed from the equation,” said Christine Civiletto, assistant vice chancellor for wellness at the university’s Health and Counseling Services. At most colleges and universities, insurance only becomes relevant when the student is in need of a specialist. To make the process easier, schools offer support from insurance and referral experts to help their undergraduates navigate this process.

Many schools are also moving away from traditional ways of offering counseling to students.

The future of mental health programming should include focusing on group therapy and expanding the social skills of students who were isolated during the pandemic, said Hyeouk “Chris” Hahm, a professor and associate dean for research at Boston University’s School of Social Work.

“Instead of only having access to one-to-one psychotherapy,” she said, “we should aim to provide community building opportunities.”

Harvard’s partnership with TimelyCare, the virtual health and well-being platform, is a step in that direction. Students now have access to online peer support, health coaching, and wellness tips, according to the website. Additionally, Harvard offers an array of telehealth resources, a new 24/7 support line, peer counseling, and support groups, Lewis said.

At Emerson, a newly integrated Wellness Center provides comprehensive counseling, health and wellness services, and engagement programming, according to its website. Undergraduates can access group therapy, work/life balance workshops, gender-affirming care, and wellness programming relating to issues such as alcohol and drugs.

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“It’s all in one place,” said Ashley, “You don’t have to call different offices and deal with that crossover.”

Brandin Dear, associate dean for Campus Life and director of Counseling, Health, and Wellness at Emerson College, said this “360 model” allows Emerson to explore how students relate to their peers, how they express their creative freedom, physical, and mental health, all while creating a welcoming community.

“We want to meet students where they are at,” Dear said

More colleges and universities now rely on cultural and religious centers, student organizations, and student leadership to provide support for their students.

At Northeastern, the Center for Spirituality, Dialogue, and Service offers daily meditations, yoga, and dining opportunities to create the community connection that was lost during the pandemic, Civiletto said.

At Harvard, different support groups and workshops aim to cover the needs of the university’s diverse population. These informal student-led groups provide a safe space for those who need it; some are even located in the basement of freshman dorms, said Dara Adamolekun, a rising junior at Harvard.

Although these services are generally well received by students, they cannot replace experts clinically trained to deal with mental health crises, said Adamolekun.

Therefore, as universities plan their next steps, more established mental health services and policies are a priority for many undergraduate student leaders. The Boston Intercollegiate Government, a student-led government organization, advocates for over 150,000 students across 16 colleges and universities in the area.

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Representatives have come together to enact long lasting policy on their respective school campuses and share among themselves initiatives that were beneficial to their student body.

Among its achievements, the group counts the introduction of “Care Days,” an initiative that ensures students can take mental health days supported by university administrations, said Adamolekun, chair of the organization.

Northeastern University was one of the first institutions to implement the mental health days in the summer of 2022.

Pooja Srinivasan, a student at Northeastern and vice chair of Boston Intercollegiate Government, said that this was beneficial for students who were afraid of retribution from professors when they needed a day off for their mental health. To request a care day, students submit a request to a database run by the university administration. Once the request is approved — each school offers different numbers of care days and has different restrictions — professors get an automated e-mail excusing the absence. This helps students get the help they need without having to share personal information with their professors, said Adamolekun.

Other schools, including the University of Massachusetts and BU, have followed Northeastern and hope to implement their own version of “Care Days,” said Srinivasan.

“Collaboration has been key,” she said.

As for Farrés, now a rising junior at Emerson, her therapist contacted Emerson’s Student Accessibility Services and requested that she have a single room. Since then, her mental health has improved.

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Emma Obregón Dominguez can be reached at emma.obregon@globe.com. Follow her on Instagram @eobredom.