The Rise of Mental Health Scholarships

Scholarships for students struggling with anxiety, depression and other psychological disorders have proliferated in recent years, often funded by donors who lost loved ones to mental illness.

March 22, 2022
 
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Students across the U.S. can receive scholarships focused on mental health.

When Terence O. Hayes Sr. was 11, he lost his mother, Ethel, to suicide. She was 29.

Decades later, Hayes, now in his 60s and a pastor in Dayton, Ohio, is honoring his mother’s legacy with a scholarship designated expressly for students with mental health issues. Because mental health was not well understood or openly discussed in the Black community when he was younger, he suppressed his own feelings, he said, which caused mental health challenges for him later as an adult.

“I wanted to do something so my mom’s name was not forgotten," said Hayes, who holds a doctorate in education. "I did not want another kid to go through what I went through. When I say that, I mean not getting help and not seeking counseling … There’s such a stigma about counseling and seeking help, and I want to remove that stigma.”

The Ethel Hayes Destigmatization of Mental Health Scholarship is open to all students who have either personally faced mental health challenges or watched a loved one struggle with them. To apply for the scholarship, students must write a short essay about how their mental health journey has impacted their beliefs, relationships and aspirations. The application closes in June, and Hayes will announce the winners on July 13—his mother’s birthday.

Last year Hayes awarded the scholarship to two students, who each received about $3,500, said Dror Liebenthal, co-founder and CEO of Bold.org, a website that hosts scholarships from a variety of donors, including Hayes. For this year’s scholarship, Hayes is fundraising with a goal of raising $10,000—enough for four or five scholarships. So far, he's raised more than $6,500.

“I think it’s a great example of a donor who really cares about this issue in a deep way,” Liebenthal said. “We love Dr. Hayes; he is one of our most prominent donors.”

One of last year’s winners, Abena Bonsu, wrote about learning of the vast disparities in health care—including mental health care—at a science enrichment program for high school students at Harvard Medical School.

“She was speaking about how she served the church and how community is so important when people are going through struggles, so that they don’t feel like they’re isolated or alone,” Hayes said. “For her being so young, it touched my heart.”

Hayes is not the only donor using scholarships to create opportunities for students who have been affected in some way by mental illness. In recent years, such scholarships have proliferated—just as they have for a wide range of ailments and disabilities, including Tourette’s syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. While some mental health scholarships cover a broad range of conditions, others are designated for students who struggle with a specific illness, such as anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder.

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“While these scholarships have been available for many years, the number of available scholarships has ballooned, primarily in recognition of the fact that there are more and more students who are struggling and need extra support,” said Jennifer Finetti, director of advocacy and outreach at ScholarshipOwl, an online platform that hosts scholarships.

The scholarships range in eligibility and criteria. Some, including the Quell Foundation Fighter Scholarship, are only for students currently being treated for a diagnosed mental health condition. Others don’t require a medical diagnosis but ask students to write an essay about their own mental health struggles. Still others are dedicated to students who have dealt with a loved one, such as a parent or sibling, who has suffered from mental illness.

Finetti said ScholarshipOwl currently offers about a dozen mental health scholarships, though the number fluctuates; some are recurring and offered two to four times per year. One asks applicants to write a personal essay about how they’ve been affected by cyberbullying, and others require students to describe their experience with substance abuse disorders. There’s also a scholarship dedicated to students studying mental health care, Finetti said.

Will Geiger, co-founder and CEO of Scholarships360, another scholarship website, said the conversation around mental illness in admissions and scholarship awards has changed a lot since he was an admissions officer at Kenyon College seven years ago.

“I think there was a perception that being vulnerable or sharing their struggles in the admissions process would ‘hurt’ your chances of earning admissions or scholarship opportunities and it was pretty rare for students to open up about these struggles,” Geiger wrote in an email. “Students think that they need to be ‘perfect’ or only show their accomplishments and I believe that with the help of more scholarships and awareness, this is shifting.”

Geiger said web traffic for mental health scholarships this year is more than twice what it was last year at this time; currently, there are at least 10 posted on his site. Their availability shows students that admissions and scholarship-selection committees do not think less of them because of their challenges, he said.

“We think it is important to show students who struggle with mental health–related issues that there are scholarship organizations and scholarship donors that are there to help and support them,” Geiger wrote. “Additionally, this shows students that there are other students who may be struggling with mental health–related issues out there too and helps students feel less alone.”

Such scholarships can be particularly useful because students with mental health needs may face unique financial barriers when attending college, said Leigh Anne White, assistant professor of human medicine at Michigan State University and chair of the national Higher Education Mental Health Alliance.

Students with mental illness or their families may incur hefty costs for things like therapy, doctor’s appointments, lab tests and medication, she said. Some students with mental illness might not be able to work a job during college, which would provide them with extra cash. And even those with comprehensive insurance coverage may be reluctant to use their plans because of the lingering stigma of mental illness, White said.

The influx of scholarships associated with mental health helps reduce the stigma, which in turn encourages more people to donate—and seek—financial aid for that purpose. Most mental health scholarships come from families that were affected by mental illness, including many who have lost a child to suicide.

“Mental health scholarships have the message that we value people who have a mental health disability, we want them to succeed in college and we recognize some of the additional struggles,” White said.

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