Where opportunity exists to improve behavioral health on college campuses, per UnitedHealthcare

College students are reporting behavioral and mental health concerns at higher rates, but there's a disconnect between their experience and how parents often perceive the severity of the issue, according to a new report from UnitedHealthcare.

"College is a time in life where behavioral health diagnoses have a tendency to emerge, regardless of what we've all been through over the last few years," Rhonda Randall, DO, UnitedHealthcare's chief medical officer for employer and individual plans, told Becker's. "But it's also a time when parents might not have as much line of sight to what's going on with their child, so it's an important conversation to have to make sure that parents and students understand where they can get access and navigation support."

The March 22 report is based on an online survey conducted between Aug. 8-14 in collaboration with YouGov that included responses from 528 parents of college students and 506 students enrolled in higher education.

Nearly half (46 percent) of college students said they or a friend have sought help for behavioral or mental health issues in the last year. Among students surveyed, 55 percent said they felt anxiety/stress and 41 percent reported depression.

For every 10 students that seek behavioral healthcare, only eight parents were aware of the problem.

Though most college students have health insurance (85 percent), 42 percent said they were still enrolled in their family's health plan. The rest were enrolled in another type of plan, a student plan, or had ACA coverage.

Only 51 percent of parents said they or their student knew how to access behavioral care on campus. In addition, 40 percent of students who said they needed help but didn't seek it because they found that care was too expensive.

Ten percent of parents prioritize mental health coverage as a top concern when choosing a health plan. Students are 60 percent more likely to say it's their top priority, and 61 percent have or would consider telehealth for behavioral needs.

According to Dr. Randall, virtual behavioral health is helping to distribute clinicians and specialties to where they are needed most since some states and cities have more licensed mental health professionals per capita than others. She shared that UnitedHealthcare's virtual behavioral health utilization increased 2,000 percent from before the pandemic to the peak of it.

"Virtual care really has opened up the possibilities of making access broader, particularly in those communities that were historically underserved," she said.

Though UnitedHealthcare has long-standing behavioral partnerships with universities, Dr. Randall recommends having licensed behavioral clinicians on campus to provide screenings and referrals, along with being able to provide support through a student's care journey. She also stresses that there is a spectrum of support that is needed, from coaching on how to deal with stress in college, to support for more serious conditions such as eating disorders or substance abuse.

"It's important to know that as lay people, teachers and resident advisors aren't expected to give someone a diagnosis, but they play a really important role in informing someone and communicating that support is available," she said.

Finally, Dr. Randall says there's also an opportunity for students to learn how to develop skills for dealing with periods of high stress, which doesn't always have to be medicalized. 

"What we're coming into and what universities are starting to have conversations about, is how we get students to the right level of support," she said. "Sometimes that's just support on how to deal with life stressors, and sometimes it's something that's much more significant. That's really what's changing."

Read the full report here.

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