The University of Minnesota on Friday announced its first-ever systemwide student mental health initiative, an effort to expand research and outreach on the issue and create new campus support services over the next three years.

The U will conduct new research into the underlying causes of mental illness, expand and update campus services, and partner with other colleges in the state to share strategies and generate more awareness about the issue. All the work will be centralized under the banner of the new President's Initiative for Student Mental Health.

"Student mental health is a top priority, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only increased the need for attention to this critical concern for our students' well-being," U President Joan Gabel said. Young adults ages 18-25 have the highest prevalence of mental illness — about 29% — compared with other age groups, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Across its five campuses, the university has a deep portfolio of clinical and nonclinical mental health services and programs. But many students are either unaware of these resources or do not know how to access them.

That's why the new initiative will focus heavily on outreach, Gabel said. The university has created an online hub that lists all the mental health services students can access. University administrators have also invested more money in telehealth technology and are looking to increase the number of service locations on their campuses.

U leaders plan to train faculty and staff to connect students who are struggling with mental health resources. Faculty will also receive training on how to balance academic rigor with sensitivity to students' needs, Gabel said.

"We want students to learn. They need to meet standards. But we want to make sure that … we do it in a way that reflects their needs," Gabel said.

University administrators will work with leaders from the Minnesota State college system as well as private and tribal colleges to develop universal best practices. The institutions previously came together in October for the first statewide summit on student mental health, something Gabel expects will become an annual tradition.

Over the next three years, U leaders hope the initiative will help them better understand the causes of mental illnesses and how best to treat them, create a clearer pathway for students to access campus support services and establish a network of colleges working to meet students' needs.

A leadership committee made up of administrators, faculty and mental health experts will share early research findings and program recommendations within the next year.

"We have the same concerns about a variety of ways that the pandemic and the social crises that we've been going through will affect incoming freshmen of the future," Gabel said. "We've put together this multidimensional initiative to get at that problem."

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234

Twitter: @ryanfaircloth