April 27, 2016
2 min read

Campus climate affects student utilization of mental health services

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Recent findings from the RAND Corporation indicated college students were more likely to use mental health services if their campus was perceived as supportive of mental health issues. Furthermore, prevention and early intervention initiatives were associated with a potential 13% increase in student utilization of mental health services.

“Among college and university students in the United States, there is a substantial gap between the need for mental health treatment and the use of mental health services. Almost 20% of college students experience some form of serious psychological distress — anxiety, depression, or feelings of hopelessness — yet only about a third of these students, many of whom have access to on-campus providers, as well as insurance to cover services, ever receive treatment,” Bradley D. Stein, MD, MPH, PhD, of the RAND Corporation and University of Pittsburgh, and colleagues wrote.

Bradley Stein

Bradley D. Stein

To better understand why students fail to seek mental health treatment, researchers analyzed data from an online survey of more than 33,000 students and 14,000 faculty on 39 California public higher education campuses in spring and fall semesters of 2013.

Approximately 20% of students reported current mental health issues and 11% reported their academic work significantly suffered in the past year because of a mental health problem.

Despite this, approximately one-fifth of students with current mental health issues sought treatment.

Students who had access to a system-wide network of on-campus mental health providers were more likely to seek treatment than their peers, who may only have access to off-campus providers.

Students with adequate coping skills were more likely to use mental health services, according to researchers.

Among students who reported their academic work suffered within the past year due to psychological distress, those with active coping skills were nearly 50% more likely to seek services, compared with those with low coping skills.

Students who perceived their campus as supportive of mental health treatment were more than 20% more likely to receive services and 60% more likely to do so on campus.

Student utilization of mental health services was also more common on campuses where faculty and staff reported they had adequate resources and services to support student mental health.

Impact of early prevention and intervention

Researchers analyzed data from a second wave of the survey, collected in spring and fall semesters of 2014, to assess the impact of the California Mental Health Services Authority’s prevention and early intervention programs.

The number of students receiving mental health services increased by 13.2% from 2013 to 2014.

Among students who reported suffering academic work, utilization of mental health services increased by approximately 16%.

Among community college students — who had the lowest rates of service use in the first survey wave — mental health service utilization increased by 15% overall and by 26% among those whose academic work suffered.

Based on these findings and those in a prior study, researchers estimated an additional 329 students will graduate each year due to increased mental health service use.

“While it appears that [the California Mental Health Services Authority’s] initiative to improve the campus climate succeeded in its goal of increasing the use of mental health services, going forward, further research is needed to better understand the relative impact of specific [prevention and early intervention] activities — for instance, the benefit of in-person or online trainings versus social media campaigns — on reducing stigma and facilitating access to effective resources and treatment for students,” the researchers concluded. – by Amanda Oldt

Disclosure: Please see the full study for a list of all authors’ relevant financial disclosures.


Stein BD, et al. Campus climate matters: changing the mental health climate on college campuses improves student outcomes and benefits society. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016. http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB9904.html.