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Perspective | Supporting mental health with data and analytics through improved education policy

All students need hope at varying levels to graduate, especially those needing mental health support. Many students are still acclimating to life after two years of COVID disruptions, on top of the usual anxiety that comes with beginning a new phase of life. New and unfamiliar surroundings, increased pressure of academics, new social dynamics, financial stressors, and other challenges can be overwhelming. 

I thought more about our postsecondary students as World Mental Health Awareness Day approached. It is easy to fall into hopelessness when overwhelmed and separated from the support you’ve relied on your whole life. 

Madeline Smith, Ph.D., director of higher education at The Hunt Institute, and I had the opportunity to discuss how data and analytics can help give hope through improved education policy. 

Challenges to mental health support in higher education 

Josh Morgan, PsyD: A new study by Gallup and Lumina Foundation found that three-fourths of students in bachelor’s programs and two-thirds of adults seeking associate degrees have considered taking a break from college due to emotional stress. Mental health was cited twice as often as other common reasons, including the pandemic, costs associated with higher education, and the difficulty of the coursework. It’s important to remember that most mental illnesses begin before the traditional college age, adding to the need for good mental health support. 

College enrollment has slowly been declining for the past decade, and the pandemic only worsened the decline in recent years. We have much to learn about the toll the pandemic took on many college-bound and current college students, let alone ongoing impacts on mental health. What are some of the challenges you’ve noticed? 

Madeline Smith, Ph.D: We have been closely monitoring mental health at institutions of higher education (IHEs). Unfortunately, we are seeing trends consistent with our previous article and a study by Boston University that “reveals the prevalence of depression and anxiety in young people continues to increase.” As a result, many IHEs and higher education systems have used federal emergency aid to grow existing mental health support. Now, as federal emergency aid expires, IHEs will rely heavily on state investment to ensure students can continue gaining access to mental health resources.

While many IHEs are improving access to mental health support, others are still struggling to keep up with the demanding needs of students, particularly when federal emergency funding is expiring. National organizations, rather than specific IHEs, conduct most studies and surveys. Without robust state-level and even institution-specific data, policymakers and administrators aren’t aware of the full scope of need. Therefore, they cannot make data-informed policy decisions to help support IHEs.

How analytics can help 

JM: I love what you say about the importance of data-informed policy. This is useful for long-term systems planning and day-to-day quality improvement and interventions. As parents, educators, and community members, we want to provide support and meet the needs of those with challenges now. But policy steps can also be taken to create a strong foundation for measuring and monitoring our college student’s social and emotional well-being. 

Analytics often drives an IHE’s strategic decisions in general. We have partnered with IHEs to apply analytics to data to help improve enrollment, attrition, and retention with great success. The same principles can be used to monitor student well-being and make strategic decisions to improve student resources. An excellent example is our work with Oklahoma State University. They started focusing on operations and retention, then expanding to engagement and even proactively identifying risks of dropout and mental health needs. 

How can we use this data and analysis to inform policy so that there is sustainable funding to provide the necessary mental health resources and create a foundation for IHEs to consistently collect and report on relevant data to further research and policy? 

MS: The connection back to enrollment and retention is that we know students who experience mental health crises and cannot access support are more likely to stop or drop out of postsecondary education. An important action for policymakers would be to mandate a needs assessment in their state to improve data collection related to mental health in higher education. In addition, we are encouraging IHEs to collaborate with existing community partners to maximize access to resources.

JM: Sharing data across IHEs and even within an IHE to break down silos can be influential in gaining a full student view of needs and successes. I’ve shared this approach from a public sector and health care perspective, but the same principles apply to this conversation. Plus, integrating existing data may result in not needing to engage in new data collection, which can lead to expenses and administrative burdens. I would also suggest that the more IHEs can collaborate with outside agencies to gain a non-education perspective, the more they can better support their students. As you discussed, needs assessments may not require new data but accessing, integrating, and using rich existing data. 

Creating hope for students’ mental health 

JM: What actions can advocates and education leaders take to move the needle toward hope? 

MS: Setting societal and educational goals and placing resources to meet those goals can be powerful, as well as continuing to evaluate the positive impacts of education. For instance, 46 states currently have postsecondary attainment goals to improve workforce skills, demonstrating the need to ensure we are removing barriers and providing support to our enrolled students. This will help us meet current and future workforce needs as well as the student development side of higher education. As former North Carolina Governor James B. Hunt once said, “Education is the foundation for all we do in life. It shapes who we are and what we aspire to be.”   

JM: That’s a wonderful quote and helps remind us that education is not just about getting jobs or better salaries. It’s fundamentally about our development, including how to be better citizens, partners, and stewards of the world. That’s where a more holistic perspective of data and the impacts of education can be useful. 

Helping evaluate and identify student needs through analytics, and even helping connect them to appropriate resources, is a powerful way to use technology to enhance support. Once that happens, data to monitor funding and analyze program effectiveness will help us inform policy necessary to provide continued mental health resources, improving student outcomes and benefiting the individual, community, and the economy long-term. 

MS: Thanks so much for inviting us into this important conversation. As you mentioned, leveraging technology to ensure students gain access to institutional support — from academic counseling to mental health services — can make a significant difference in their education trajectory. Our hope is that by using analytics to demonstrate the benefits of positive mental health policies, practices, and resources at IHEs, we can create a higher education system that promotes student success.

Josh Morgan

As SAS’ National Director of Behavioral Health and Whole Person Care, Dr. Josh Morgan helps public sector health agencies use data and analytics to support a person-centered approach to improving health outcomes. A licensed psychologist, Dr. Morgan was previously San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health’s Chief of Behavioral Health Informatics.