Colleges in Minnesota and across the country have experienced less demand for campus mental health services this fall, surprising counselors and administrators who expected the pandemic to accelerate a growing crisis.

Even so, leaders of the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State systems are bracing for the possibility that students might emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic with greater mental health troubles caused by unprecedented isolation and disruption. The two public college systems teamed up Thursday for the first-ever statewide summit on student mental health, where leaders convened virtually to discuss strategies and the possible formation of an initiative to address the needs of Minnesota students.

“This is a critical issue. It has been for several years but of course now more than ever,” U President Joan Gabel said. “We all assume that the more we learn about how the pandemic has affected us, this issue that certainly predates the pandemic will only be more acute.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has documented worsening mental health among adults over the course of the pandemic, with a disproportionate effect on those ages 18 to 24. The Healthy Minds Network and American College Health Association collected data from 14 colleges this year and found more students were depressed and reported their mental health interfered with their studies.

The magnitude of this problem, leaders said, is simply too large for any institution to handle alone.

Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra said state colleges — public, private and tribal — should share resources with one another to tackle the issue. He and Gabel are considering an ongoing student mental health initiative where colleges would work together to establish best practices for training and outreach and make students aware of available resources.

Gabel and Malhotra also discussed whether college curricula should evolve to accommodate students’ needs, a concept they admitted was controversial.

“We have to ask ourselves the question that as institutions … are we ready for the students who are coming to us? And stop asking the question of if our students are ready for us,” Malhotra said.

Some U faculty are already re-evaluating their teaching styles to reduce the likelihood they aggravate students’ mental health issues, Gabel said. They are weighing everything from how they describe classroom expectations to whether there is more than one way to demonstrate subject mastery during course assessments.

“Many of us came up through the educational system at a time where failing people … was the point of the course,” Gabel said of classes designed to weed out students. “I’d like to think we’ve evolved from that as a matter of quality instruction and because it is unnecessarily aggravating for students facing a variety of challenges.”

The summit was held in the midst of a fall semester when many colleges have noted less demand for campus mental health services.

The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors surveyed 144 colleges in September to compare students’ use of mental health services over the first four weeks of the semester compared with the same span last fall. The survey found 29% fewer students were seeking counseling services, though 80% of counseling centers reported an increase in student loneliness.

At the U’s Twin Cities campus, demand for therapy and psychiatry appointments at the Boynton Health Service mental health clinic are down 3% compared with the first month of fall 2019. The clinic has also seen a sharp decrease in new students coming in for initial consultations, as has Student Counseling Services, which operates separately from Boynton. Student Counseling Services has seen 30% fewer new clients this fall.

“The numbers themselves have been a little surprising,” said Matt Hanson, interim director of Boynton mental health clinic. “With so much conversation happening this summer and even into the fall about how much more prevalent mental health conditions were in the broader population, I just kind of assumed we’d be swamped from the get-go.”

Campus administrators and mental health professionals stress that the drop in demand does not necessarily equate to a decrease in students’ needs. With most classes being taught online, more students are living away from campus. They could be accessing local providers or getting support from family, friends or faith communities.

A spring survey from the Healthy Minds Network and American College Health Association found 60% of students reported the pandemic made it more difficult to get mental health care.

Deb Broderick, interim director of counseling and psychological services at the University of St. Thomas’ Center for Well-Being, said some students have struggled to find private space in their homes for remote therapy appointments. Counselors at the St. Paul private college are compiling a list of campus spaces that students can reserve, she said.

Counseling appointments at the University of St. Thomas were down by more than 35% from late August through late September, compared with the same period last year.

Among the students who did seek services, Broderick said counselors noticed some were struggling to adjust to hybrid and remote learning. Students with depression grappled with keeping themselves motivated and those with learning disabilities had trouble staying focused.

Despite such challenges, students have largely proven to be resilient and adaptable, Broderick said.

“If given the right support and the right resources,” she said, “they will rise to the occasion.”