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The Healthy Minds Study Listens To Students To Reform Mental Health Services

In a national mental health crisis, a nationwide survey that includes Emory hopes to shed light on students’ stress

By Gabrielle Stearns

The Healthy Minds Network surveys and tracks the mental health of students at colleges and universities all over the United States. According to their 2021 data, an astonishing 41 percent of surveyed college students experience some kind of depression and 34% screen positive for an anxiety disorder.

How do students at Emory compare? The university isn’t sure, which is why they decided to participate in the Healthy Minds Survey this year for the first time. 

“The goal of implementing the Healthy Minds Study was to assist in more deeply understanding the student’s current needs and then look for opportunities to either deepen, evolve, or shift the well-being resources,” says Brandi Benton, the director of Emory’s Office of Health Promotion.

Emory joins a cohort of about 140 other schools surveying their undergraduate students this year. Students were invited to participate in the online survey in January and February of 2023. The questions included diagnostic criteria for common mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, and questions about what Emory-specific resources students have utilized.

Photo by Norbert Kundrak on Unsplash

The Benefits of Participation

The benefits of Emory’s participation in the Healthy Minds Survey are twofold. Data from the university’s students is added to the pool of national data, helping the network present a clear picture of the mental health landscape of students enrolled in higher education across the country.

Dr. Justin Heinze, Associate Professor of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan and one of the principal investigators for the Healthy Minds Study, explains that every participating school matters to their study.

“One of the really exciting things is we’re starting to see a diversity of schools participating,” he says. “It’s not just research institutions like Michigan and Emory. We’re seeing community colleges participate. We’re seeing liberal arts schools participate. We’re seeing minority-serving institutions participate. And that’s beginning to give us a better, clearer picture of what the true mental health burden is around the country.”

This data collection will also help Emory students directly. The Office of Health Promotion aims to use the information to tailor mental health resources to the specific needs of Emory’s student population. The survey given to Emory students asked them to share their perceptions about resources available on campus, such as the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and the Emory Helpline.

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What’s Going to Change?

The survey data has been collected but there are still many unknowns about how the university will proceed.

“We are still waiting for a complete data analysis,” Benton explained. Emory will make the data available to the public after the analysis, and then students might start seeing changes. The timeline for publicized results and eventual institutional change is still up in the air.

“We’re taking all of this information in, and depending on the type and scope of changes, some can be quickly implemented while others could – and should – take some time,” Dr. Benton says.

This may not feel like a definitive enough answer to Emory students who desire a reform in the way mental health is dealt with on campus. Students already experience delays in some mental health care provided by Emory. For example, students often complain of long wait times to get appointments with counselors at CAPS. The process of receiving an initial appointment and getting matched with a counselor can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks according to the FAQs on their website. Waiting for this data from the Healthy Minds study to be put to use may feel like yet another delay in care.

Dr. Heinze has seen about 450 colleges and universities use the data from the Healthy Minds Study to improve their resources for students. He affirms that seeking this data makes it “more likely we’ll see reactive and maybe even proactive decision making around mental health.” 

Reform takes time, but the knowledge gained from this study has the potential to make addressing mental health challenges easier and quicker in the future. While exact effects of participating in the Healthy Minds Study are still up in the air, it is a promising step and an indication that the university is listening to the needs of students.