In 2023, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) and The Jed Foundation (JED) launched a learning community across state higher education agencies and systems  to better support college student mental health and determinants such as equity and belonging. In late April, SHEEO and JED will host a convening in Minneapolis, “The Wellness Blueprint: Cultivating Foundations for Statewide Student Mental Health Policy,” with the purpose of continuing the development and implementation of state- and system-wide policy recommendations to advance student mental health and wellness. The hope is after a year-long collaboration, states will have moved the needle on a problem that lies at the intersection of each organization’s area of advocacy and expertise: mental health challenges remain the number one reason students stop out or consider stopping out of their post-secondary programs.

Dr. John Lane is the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Equity Initiatives at SHEEO, where he leads policy and project development in educational equity, academic programs, and student success. SHEEO works with state higher education officers to promote equitable higher education attainment for all Americans. 

“Whether these challenges are crisis circumstances or are accumulated over time and hidden, students identify mental health as the primary challenge to their academic persistence and achievement,” says Lane. The issue is exacerbated for low-income students, many of whom will never return to school, and are often laden with debt and the result is no degree to show for it.  

Last year, states submitted grant proposals detailing their plans and commitments to mental health as a facet of equity in higher education, as well as their efforts to engage internal stakeholders, such as a state Department of Public Health. Five states — Arizona, Louisiana, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas — were selected to receive $25,000 grants to support their work to implement mental health solutions tailored to their unique contexts over a 15-month period. The objective of the partnership was to provide states with the resources to explore how mental health and equity are being addressed and to share their findings through cross-state collaboration. 

The Jed Foundation brings decades of research and expertise in suicide prevention and student mental health to the table. It is also another example of an expanding focus for the non-profit, which has recently added a public affairs and advocacy component to its work with colleges and high schools.  The JED Equitable Implementation Framework and the JED Campus Program will be used to guide state policymakers in creating a space for states to identify best practices, refine strategies, and work toward inter-state collaboration. The Jed Foundation has a longstanding precedent of centering student mental health as an academic issue, making its partnership with SHEEO an opportunity for the organizations to implement robust, research-supported policy change, study best practices as tailored to states’ unique resources and needs, and improve student outcomes by working directly with policymakers. 

“There is no rulebook right now for investing in student mental health at the state level. We are building as we climb.”

Dr. Zainab Okolo is the Senior Vice President of Policy, Advocacy, and Government Relations at the Jed Foundation. Okolo says the mission of the learning community is to help guide state systems in centering mental health in state and federal policy. “What we found at JED was a gap and an opportunity,” she says. “In response to the mental health crisis that was exacerbated during the pandemic, we saw many state-level leaders begin to directly invest in mental health. Governors had clear new line items around mental health — but there wasn’t any guidance on how to actually move the needle on mental health, or whether or not the investments being made at the state level were answering the questions around how we destigmatize mental health, how we expand resources, and how we ensure that students, particularly within school settings, are having their mental health needs met so they can continue to thrive as they pursue their degrees.” In having conversations with their partners at SHEEO, an imperative emerged to ensure that state policymakers had the means to support the work that they were already investing in. The priority was there, Okolo says, but procedural clarity wasn’t: “There is no rulebook right now for investing in student mental health at the state level. We are building as we climb.”

A Just Design

The mental health learning community comes at a time when mental health is a steadfast feature of public discourse and a topic of conversation on the federal stage. “There is a great opportunity here to take advantage of the attention that is being rightly paid to this work, as recently as the President’s State of the Union address,” says Lane.“We are so fortunate to do this work now; we have the Surgeon General whose platform is mental health, and the Secretary of Education who cares about the wellbeing and mental health of college students, and wants to know how to best sustain support for students and for systems that are supporting them.” 

According to Okolo, bringing states together on these issues highlights the similarities of their positions even as they navigate different political landscapes. “They're all grappling with very similar questions. How do you scale crisis response? What specific policy levers need to be in place in order to continue this work, even beyond this kind of mental health Renaissance moment? How do we flag for our federal stakeholders and leaders that we need harder lines of funding to continue on even beyond these next couple of years? The learning community creates a space for states to collaborate and learn from each other.”

The five states selected for the learning community project — Texas, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Louisiana — represent a diverse range of education policy, resources, and student demographics. “We were deliberate about the variety of states,” says Lane. “The topography of the states is representative of a deeper conversation about how we tailor our work to the unique circumstances of each state. The political landscape varies greatly across these five states. So does the availability of resources, the governance model and the engagement profile. So, states work really hard to build consensus among their stakeholders, and regardless of the model, try to provide direction to help set important way points.”

Texas is one of several U.S. states to implement changes to its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies within the last year. Senate Bill 17 banned all DEI programming from public colleges and universities in the state, creating  potential mental health risks for students who relied on affinity groups and identity-based spaces to cultivate a sense of inclusion and belonging on campus. These changes to DEI policies went into effect after the launch of the learning community, Okolo points out, and only reinforce the importance of adaptability and community engagement. When mental health initiatives find themselves in the crosshairs of fraught political divides, they reveal a unique area of bipartisanship. 

“The interesting thing about working within these political contexts is that this work remains bipartisan,” Okolo explains. “We see clarity around the importance of mental health echoed across states. What's not bipartisan is the approach to issues around parental access, data, and funding. So the approach is not bipartisan, but the issue and the framing of the issue remains undoubtedly bipartisan. We want to keep it that way and lean into that opportunity by learning about how to do this work no matter the political ground that we find ourselves in.”

The public spirit, Lane and Okolo say, has not changed even where laws have. DEI “is directly adjacent to our mental health work, and it influences the scope of our reach when it comes to identifying needs based on race,” says Okolo. “What I'm happy to see, though, is that Texas made a commitment to making mental health resources accessible to all. What the ban might mean is that the language, how we frame it, what we call it, may change. But it doesn't change the intent of the work.”

The mental health learning community leans into designing equitable futures within the contexts of each state. This, Lane says, calls for new approaches to address the systemic biases and inequity that are known contributors to the lack of access to mental health supports and can therefore serve as deterrents to student success and degree attainment. As a result, new projects at SHEEO include more dialogue about “just design.” According to Lane, “If you know pre-existing structures, and best efforts in the past have resulted in the need for current work and equity to try to mitigate disparities, then, if we have new solutions without addressing those original systemic circumstances, we could accidentally perpetuate the disparities that equity efforts are meant to close.” 

“The topography of the states is representative of a deeper conversation about how we tailor our work to the unique circumstances of each state. The political landscape varies greatly across these five states. So does the availability of resources, the governance model and the engagement profile.”

In order to address systemic discrimination and avoid repeating previously unsuccessful — and potentially harmful — initiatives, Lane says states must raise questions about designing systems and environments. A just design, he says, is one that centers community engagement, student voices, and adaptability to different states and institutions. The SHEEO/JED collaboration is currently building a student panel to foreground the student experience in policy reform. The goal is to not only amplify student voices, but to give students a seat at the table of changemaking. 

“Our goal to center student voices goes beyond the traditional model, which often includes bringing on students who share a narrative in the first-person,” Lane says. “My feeling is that too often we resume the policy work without taking an important next step, and that next step is giving students a sense of agency so that they are at the table with us as thought partners and are mentored in collaborating around policy in a way that helps us in the present, that gives them development opportunities for the future and really enriches the work that we’re doing.”

Lane and Okolo are looking forward to the late April conference to collectively assess how much has been accomplished and to provide a best practices guide. “What we are hoping to achieve with the best practices guide is a bit of a north star and a guardrail context on what to consider when implementing and scaling mental health work within your state,” Okolo says. “What are the blind spots? Who are the unsung heroes and key stakeholders that should be at the table when making these decisions? What opportunities do you have to triage off campus? What community-based organizations do you have at your fingertips to close the gap between resources on your campus and ensuring that students get the support that they need? Those kinds of strategic levers are what we hope to outline, so that if the state never engages with us directly, they have a way of navigating this work within their state context.”