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6 Key Action Items From “The Wellness Blueprint,” a Convening of Top Higher Education and Mental Health Policy Leaders

Top education and mental health professionals, college students, representatives from the U.S. Department of Education, and JED and SHEEO staff members gather at the convening in Minneapolis.

By Jessica Hicks

From April 29 to May 1, 2024, The Jed Foundation (JED) and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO), with generous support from the Lumina Foundation, hosted an inaugural convening of top education and mental health professionals along with college students and representatives from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to discuss critical policy changes needed to support student mental health. The convening, aptly named The Wellness Blueprint: Cultivating Foundations for Statewide Student Mental Health Policy, made the path toward improved student well-being clearer than ever.

More than 50 stakeholders gathered in Minneapolis for the three-day event, which included panel discussions and presentations on everything from evidence-based policy and program development to creating equitable mental health supports and fostering collaboration across student bodies, institutions, and state governments. The convening featured a keynote speech from Roberto J. Rodríguez, ED’s Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, and welcomed policy leaders from Arizona, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

The Wellness Blueprint covered dozens of topics to improve mental health for our nation’s college students and uncovered ways states can learn from and lean on one another to support student well-being, but there were six major takeaways that linked the events:

  • Implementing a comprehensive approach to mental health
  • Acknowledging external factors that impact mental health
  • Using a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) lens when implementing mental health programming
  • Making mental health initiatives a financial priority
  • Using evidence-based practices to develop mental health policy and programming
  • Fostering collaboration to advance mental health advocacy and policymaking

Read more about key takeaways, considerations, and the strides state education and mental health leaders are making below.

Implementing a Comprehensive Approach to Mental Health

“The statistics are clear: Young people are currently facing unprecedented mental health challenges,” says Dr. Zainab Okolo, JED’s Senior Vice President of Policy, Advocacy, and Government Relations. “At JED, our data demonstrates that when comprehensive approaches are implemented and championed by higher education systems, we can meaningfully reduce suicidal ideation, planning, and attempts.”

Throughout The Wellness Blueprint discussions, state higher education representatives highlighted the importance of developing cross-state early intervention strategies and preventive spaces and opportunities to secure the well-being of students, rather than leaning on reactionary measures.

Acknowledging External Factors That Impact Mental Health

Student mental health doesn’t exist in a silo. Attendees discussed how external forces, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, technological advancements, and societal challenges, affect student well-being and need to be considered when developing mental health programming. They need to be not only considered, but also proactively addressed so no student is left without the support they need. 

During the Learning Community State Showcases: Examining Strategies to Enhance Student Mental Health Policies presentation, leaders from Pennsylvania shared how their PA MASLOW model recognizes that students’ basic needs, such as feeling safe and having access to food and housing, need to be met in order to support mental health and overall success. The model allows educators and policymakers to think strategically about creating supportive collegiate environments and connects students to resources to fulfill their basic needs.

Leaders from Oregon touched on how they expanded basic needs navigators that connect students to resources both on campus and in the community. They also shared that they are hosting one-on-one success-planning sessions and tutoring for students, as well as providing services directly to student organizations and cultural centers where students already gather so they can more easily be connected to resources.

Using a DEI Lens When Implementing Mental Health Programming

The convening emphasized the importance of recognizing the unique needs of students from marginalized communities and calling for the representation of diverse voices and perspectives in mental health policy and service delivery. That challenge has become even greater in the face of many states’ anti-DEI legislation, which threatens to close campus multicultural centers and DEI offices, ban the teaching of critical race theory, and more. 

Hiring culturally responsive mental health counselors and faculty members that reflect the identities and experiences of the student body, offering campus services in multiple languages, and connecting campus cultural centers and groups with resources to share with their members are ways states can implement a DEI lens. In some cases, they’re already doing it in the face of challenges.

Making Mental Health Initiatives a Financial Priority

Campus mental health initiatives are essential and deserving of budget allocations, not only because of the benefits to students, but also because of the potential return on investment for communities, schools, and society as a whole. 

In his presentation, Show Me the Money: The Case for Investment in Mental Health, Daniel Eisenberg, a principal investigator at the Healthy Minds Network, shared research that suggests that reducing depressive symptoms among students may increase retention, which ultimately benefits colleges and universities through increased tuition and benefits students and society through increased lifetime productivity.

Using Evidence-Based Practices to Develop Mental Health Policy and Programming

The convening stressed the importance of using research findings, as well as engaging with reputable organizations through an equity lens when developing, implementing, and reviewing policies and programming. 

Although leaning on data is imperative to developing best practices and making the case for mental health investment, Eisenberg also highlighted in his panel the importance of being culturally responsive when considering data. He emphasized that there are limitations to data. What works for one student population may not work for another more diverse population, and institutions must focus on cultural considerations when collecting and using evidence.

Fostering Collaboration to Advance Mental Health Advocacy and Policymaking

Teamwork is what makes mental health policy work. Students and stakeholders discussed how centering student voices, encouraging faculty to work in collaboration with student advocacy groups, and creating spaces that allow students to feel seen and get a sense of belonging can foster collaboration and positive change.

By embracing comprehensive public health approaches, recognizing external influences, prioritizing diversity and equity, allocating resources strategically, and grounding decisions in evidence-based practices, states are poised to transform the landscape of student mental health support. As we reflect on the shared commitment and determination witnessed in Minneapolis, JED will continue to carry forward the momentum, united in our resolve to champion the well-being of every college student across the nation.

Check out photos from the Minneapolis convening.

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