Changing the Mental Health Climate on College Campuses Improves Student Outcomes and Benefits Society

For Release

April 1, 2016

One of the most important factors influencing whether a college student in California seeks help for a mental health problem is the campus attitude toward mental health issues, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

Students on campuses where there was wide support for mental health issues were more than 20 percent more likely to receive mental health services and 60 percent more likely to do so on-campus, according to the findings.

To better understand why and how often students fail to seek help for a mental health problem, RAND researchers collected data from an online survey administered at 39 California higher education campuses in the spring and fall semesters of 2013. A total of 33,943 college students and 14,018 staff and faculty completed surveys.

The researchers paid particular attention to factors that are amenable to change, such as the presence of on-campus mental health clinics, students' coping skills and campus climate around mental health issues. The findings will be published online April 1 in Psychiatric Services in Advance and in the August print edition of the journal Psychiatric Services.

“We found that it was not just the students' perception of campus climate that was important,” said Dr. Bradley Stein, a study author and a senior scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “On campuses where the faculty and staff felt they had adequate resources and services to support students with mental health problems, there was significantly higher use of mental health services by students, both on and off campus.”

Researchers found that 19 percent of students reported experiencing serious psychological distress in the past 30 days and 11 percent reported significant mental health-related academic impairment in the past year, such as having to drop a class. Twenty percent of all students reported using mental health services while attending their current college, with 10 percent using on-campus services and 10 percent off-campus services.

The California Mental Health Services Authority (CalMHSA), an organization of county governments working to improve mental health outcomes for individuals, families and communities, has provided funds to support prevention and early intervention efforts across each of the California public university and college systems. With the support, all three higher educational systems have made substantial efforts to enhance awareness and knowledge of student mental health issues, as well as related services.

Students with active coping skills such as seeking alternate solutions to personal problems or working out problems by talking or writing about them were also among the most likely use mental health services. The students with active coping skills were almost 50 percent more likely to seek services compared to the students with low coping skills.

“The importance of coping skills was especially noticeable among students who reported that their academic work had suffered in the past year as a result of current serious psychological distress,” said Lisa Sontag-Padilla, the study's lead author and a researcher at RAND.

The research team estimates that if every California public college student with a current mental health problem or recent mental health-related academic impairment were to study on a campus with a culture supportive of mental wellness, the chances of that student getting the mental health services they need would increase by almost 40 percent.

Support for the study was provided by CalMHSA. CalMHSA statewide mental health prevention and early intervention programs are funded by counties through Proposition 63. The proposition, also known as the Mental Health Services Act, imposed a tax on high-income California residents to expand mental health services to previously underserved populations and all of California's diverse communities. The CalMHSA programs are only one part of the Prop 63 initiatives.

The study, “Factors Affecting Mental Health Service Utilization Among California Public College and University Students,” is one in a series of reports done by RAND to provide an assessment of the efforts being made by CalMHSA.

Other authors of the study are Joshua Mendelsohn, Elizabeth J. D'Amico, Karen Chan Osilla, Lisa H. Jaycox, Nicole K. Eberhart and M. Audrey Burnam from RAND and Michelle W. Woodbridge from SRI International.

RAND Health is the nation's largest independent health policy research program, with a broad research portfolio that focuses on population health, health care costs, quality and public health systems, among other topics.

About RAND

RAND is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.