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Colleges investing in mental health, basic needs support

Posted at 11:24 AM, Mar 29, 2022

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — As the economy and job market rebound, many college students don't feel they are bouncing back as quickly.

“A lot of my peers, I've heard, are worried about the future," said Marisa Krauter, a psychology student at San Diego State University (SDSU). "What the world is going to look like in a couple of months or a couple of years."

Witnessing a mental health crisis unfold during the pandemic, Krauter got a real-world lesson in her field. She also saw an accelerated push to stop the sigma.

“It was really cool to have this focus, academically, on mental health. And then seeing this huge thing happen in the world, and how that has affected everyone," said Krauter. "And then seeing everyone, all of a sudden, take notice of the importance of mental health."

An advanced peer educator for Counseling and Psychology Services at SDSU, Krauter accompanies the school's newest therapy dog on campus. Adopted during the pandemic, Luna provides emotional support to students and staff.

“There are some real concrete ways that Luna benefits students," said Jennifer Rikard, director of Counseling and Psychology Services. "One could be a decrease in blood pressure, [an] increase in oxytocin, which is the feel-good hormone."

Rikard says having two therapy dogs on campus helps de-stigmatize seeking mental health support.

“We have data to show that we have a lot of death of loved ones that students, and of course faculty and staff, have experienced. So there's a lot of grieving," Rikard said.

Her team works closely with SDSU's Economic Crisis Response Team (ECRT), which aims to bridge the gap in resources for students experiencing immediate food, housing, or unforeseen financial crises that impact student success.

"Because we have the Economic Crisis Response Team, and all the resources that come with that, it feels a lot more manageable on the mental health side because we can provide these wraparound services for students in need," Rikard said.

Expanding ECRT services online during the pandemic, the campus saw a 75 percent increase in students seeking support. University officials say the virtual format has helped eliminate barriers to care and reach more students in need.

“A lot of our students are experiencing crises related to basic needs, whether that be food insecurity or housing insecurity," said Rikard.

With federal COVID-19 relief funding, the school is expanding efforts to address challenges exacerbated by the pandemic.

“As you can imagine, if there's not food, there's not much room for addressing lifelong goals or even studying," said Rikard.

Colleges across the country are offering students grant money to address childcare, meal assistance, technology, and transportation. More than 400 campuses are adopting student navigator networks, a national initiative aimed at reducing the stigma often associated with seeking basic needs assistance.

In addition to offering support groups ranging from grief to body image, SDSU is training faculty and staff on how to support students in distress.

“Using technology, using social media platforms— and really trying to stay very relevant to students," said Rikard. “It’s never been a better time, resource-wise, to support students in a great way.”