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Colleges get federal guidance on using COVID relief to support student mental health

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A student walks on the University of New Mexico campus.

The Department of Education suggested how colleges can invest leftover COVID relief funds in mental health care. Sam Wasson/Getty Images

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Most institutions of higher education in this country received some kind of federal funding to help them — and their students — get through the pandemic. The government provided more than $76 billion to schools for all kinds of things, from COVID-19 tests and laptops for remote learning to help with tuition.

Not all of that money has been spent, though. On Thursday, the Department of Education provided new guidance for how colleges can put at least some of what’s left toward mental health care.

Rama Thaher-Sawalhi is 42 years old, has three kids and is graduating next month from the Community College of Baltimore County. She’s taken six years to get her associate’s degree, and she said many of her fellow students are stressed by the idea that they should get through school quickly. 

“It makes you feel like, ‘Oh my God, like, I need to finish within this time frame.’ But it does not have to be on the expense of your mental health,” she said.

Thaher-Sawalhi is studying behavioral health counseling and is a big fan of that service. “Everyone needs a therapist, honestly. Even therapists need therapists!”

She connected with her own therapist through her school, which used some of its federal COVID relief to buy a subscription to the mental health platform Togetherall.

It’s an online network where students can anonymously vent any time of day. The Department of Education is providing ideas for other things schools can spend money on, such as text-based counseling or suicide-prevention training. 

“Our universities understand that their role is also to meet the students where they are,” said Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. “Some of that is academic, some of that is nonacademic and it’s mental health.”

But the relief funds are a one-time thing, and schools and the federal government need to make long-term investments in mental health, said Bryce McKibben of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University.

“If institutions don’t address student success, they’re not going to be able to succeed long-term as institutions,” McKibben said.

And, he added, schools are competing to find mental health counselors, who are in high demand.

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