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Invest in Student Mental Health to Invest in our Workforce

Do Illinois lawmakers want to improve our economy, ensure more college students graduate, and build a more resilient workforce?

Then, they must invest in mental health services and supports at our colleges and universities. 

Clearly, the state of our mental health directly impacts our performance at school and work. What younger generations acknowledge is that we deserve mental health supports and services to address the issues, rather than hide them in shame. Whether it’s depression, social anxiety, bipolar disorder, or more, we have a right to seek treatment, because without it, not only do we suffer, but our community does as well. 

But it’s not just intuitive; research has demonstrated a clear link between depression and lower grade point averages. A March 2023 Lumina Foundation and Gallup report highlighted the extent to which issues related to mental health dominate students’ reasons for potentially dropping out of college. Without the supports to adequately address mental health issues, students’ academic success and workforce readiness can suffer considerably. 

Illinois lawmakers have made great strides since 2019, when they unanimously passed the Mental Health Early Action on Campus Act, a law that sets up goals for all Illinois public colleges and universities to better address students’ mental health needs. However, it went unfunded for years. Colleges and universities have been struggling to implement the law without dedicated state funds, despite their creativity and desire to help students.  

It wasn’t until this January that lawmakers added $9 million in the Fiscal Year 2023 supplemental state budget to implement the Act, but the funding was only through the end of FY23–June 30, 2023. 

Eram was a student at an Illinois public university who reached out to Young Invincibles to share her story with us and participate in the work to change the status quo. She told us, “I’ve struggled with my mental health for years and haven’t been able to acquire adequate services to this day. After multiple thoughts of attempting suicide, I decided to reach out for help, and unfortunately, my expectations were not met. 

It took me four years to reach out for help, and that led me to multiple different clinics and locations and additional referrals, but to this day, I don’t have a therapist. ‘The waitlist is about a year long,’ they told me when I asked for an appointment, ‘Your insurance doesn’t cover the cost,’ providers would consistently break it down to me. ‘We don’t have enough people to help everyone reaching out.’ This is what they told me for months.  I don’t want other students to go through what I’m going through.” 

Last week, our state legislators allocated $12.6 million the to fund the Mental Health Early Action on Campus Act! While not the full amount needed, this funding can help colleges and universities hire more mental health providers, host training for faculty and staff, purchase screening tools, and connect students like Eram with the support they need to continue in school–and in life. Ultimately, this funding improves the likelihood that students can address their mental wellbeing, stay in college, graduate, and join the workforce prepared. The funding must continue, however. Colleges and universities must be able to plan for more than one fiscal year out, and more funding is needed to adequately meet their mental health needs. Even so, this $12.6 million investment in the next state fiscal year, will pay off for years.

Lily Rocha is the Midwest Regional Director for Young Invincibles, a national nonpartisan nonprofit organization expanding economic opportunity and amplifying the voices of 18-34 in the political process.