Colleges Urged to Spend COVID-19 Funds on Student Mental Health Services

New Department of Education guidance outlines how colleges have used HEERF to improve student mental health services and encourages other institutions to follow suit.

May 25, 2022 · Updated on May 25, 2022

Edited by Raneem Taleb-Agha
Colleges Urged to Spend COVID-19 Funds on Student Mental Health Services
COVID-19 Higher Ed Policy
Photo by Jim Watson / Contributor / AFP / Getty Images

  • Institutions have received billions in federal COVID-19 relief aid since March 2020.
  • The Department of Education is now encouraging schools to use some aid for services such as mental health counseling.
  • The department outlined steps some schools have already taken to address students' mental health challenges.

The Department of Education (ED) marked Mental Health Awareness Month by encouraging colleges and universities to use COVID-19 relief funds for mental health services.

The department last week issued a memo outlining how institutions can use Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) grants to support their students' mental health needs. The memo provides examples of schools that have already launched programs using these funds and outlines how other schools can do the same.

The American Rescue Plan allocated nearly $40 billion in HEERF grants to colleges and universities, including $198 million to be distributed throughout 2022. While half of the funds are to be distributed directly to students through financial aid, colleges and universities can choose to use the rest to support students through other means.

ED stated in its latest memo that mental health services should be a priority for schools.

"Although HEERF grants are a one-time infusion of funds, initial investments in high-impact mental health projects can be made now, with ongoing support after initial success of these programs provided through philanthropic efforts, local partnerships, or other funding sources," the department said.

One such way ED suggests is through hiring in-person mental health professionals, including social workers, counselors, and crisis support staff. Some schools, ED said, have instead opted to use HEERF funds to pay for telehealth services — like online, on-demand counselors — or to organize wellness activities to improve mental health.

"These programs extend beyond counseling to also address emotional wellness and teach coping strategies," ED said

The department stressed the funds can also go towards services like:

  • Suicide prevention training
  • Peer support programs
  • Crisis hotlines
  • Screening programs to refer students to the right treatment option

ED also provided examples of some schools that used HEERF grants to establish long-term programs to support the mental health needs of students and faculty. For example, the University System of Georgia developed a systemwide task force to develop solutions to these challenges. The funds can also go toward student groups supporting specific communities within a system, like LGBTQ+ students.

As part of this push, ED extended the performance period of HEERF grants through the end of June 2023, allowing schools to use the money awarded for a longer period.

Student mental health is top of mind for many university and college presidents. A fall 2021 survey of institution presidents from the American Council on Education found that 68% of presidents listed the mental health of students as a top concern for them. This was the highest-ranking issue in the December survey.

The federal government invested in suicide prevention on college campuses earlier this year.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced nearly $35 million to strengthen mental health support for children and young adults. HHS funds seven grant programs, including the GLS Campus Suicide Prevention program, which will distribute $2.2 million for mental health services at up to 22 colleges and universities.