If you are in crisis and would like to talk to someone, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text “HELLO” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. Both services are free, confidential, and available 24/7.
As the pandemic drags on past 19 months in the United States, the Education Department and the Justice Department on Wednesday implored colleges and schools to be especially attentive to students who are showing signs of self-harm or suicide.
If institutions don’t adequately support students with mental-health diagnoses, as required by federal law, the departments warned that they could draw an investigation.
Suzanne B. Goldberg, a former senior administrator at Columbia University who’s now the Education Department’s acting assistant secretary for civil rights, wrote in a letter to educators that the Covid-19 era had “taken a profound toll” on students’ mental health.
Researchers have found a rise in suicidal ideation among children and adults during the pandemic, Goldberg wrote, and vulnerable populations, including students of color and LGBTQ+ students, are at particularly high risk. Some students’ existing mental-health challenges have worsened during Covid-19, she said, while other students have experienced such concerns for the first time.
In the letter, written on behalf of both departments, Goldberg listed several steps that colleges and schools should take to support students, such as providing mental-health evaluations and services, modifying attendance policies, and training staff members to recognize signs of distress.
The departments also released a fact sheet on self-harm and suicide, including examples of incidents that the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights or the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division could investigate.
One hypothetical involved a college student with bipolar disorder who had been hospitalized for a suicide attempt. An administrator immediately forced the student to take a medical leave of absence before doing an individualized assessment.
Another example involved a student dealing with a prolonged case of Covid, which had caused fatigue and an inability to concentrate and had made her depression worse. The college refused to consider her request to take a lighter courseload and to learn remotely.
The new federal guidance — which summarizes existing laws and policies — comes as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill opened two suicide investigations last weekend. At other colleges, there have been troubling signs of suicide clusters.
The pandemic’s effects on student mental health so far are complex. Data show that Covid-19 hasn’t led to a deluge of new psychological diagnoses among students. But anxiety and depression rates were already alarmingly high before the pandemic, and they’ve trended upward, with one survey finding that 41 percent of students screened positive for depression and 34 percent of students screened positive for anxiety in the spring of 2021. Stress and burnout, particularly related to academics, have escalated.
Students say that virtual learning has been intellectually and emotionally draining for many of them, and that public-health restrictions on campuses designed to reduce the spread of the coronavirus have increased loneliness and isolation.