University system struggling to provide equal access to mental health care across all campuses

A raised banner at Keene State College. Photo/KSC

Durham, NH — Sherri Robinson, assistant vice provost for student life at the University of New Hampshire, has a perspective on the mental health crisis facing teachers that comes from years on the front lines.

She has been an active therapist for the past two decades, counseling students since 2004. “We’ve always seen stress, anxiety and depression,” she says. “But now we’re seeing more severe depression, bipolar disorder and psychosis, and more developmental disorders like autism. Those students may do well in college, but they need more supportive services.”

The university system’s board of trustees heard a clarion call for those services in late August, when a group of students and administrators presented a report on “mental health and campus life,” which looked at access to mental health services in the university system. More equality was demanded. ,

University system student board representatives, along with chief student-life officers at UNH, Plymouth State, Keene State and the online Granite State College, reported the research was initiated because of a common theme among students and student representatives: a significant decline in student attendance. in well-being and mental health compared to previous years.

This is not surprising given the alarm bells ringing across the country. Healthy Mind The annual web-based survey of college students nationwide reported that 41 percent of respondents screened positive for depression, while 34 percent screened positive for anxiety in the academic year 2021-22. The survey reached 450 colleges and universities, with more than a half million respondents. Perhaps most troubling of all, one in four have serious thoughts of suicide.

UNH research has shown that the number of students receiving counseling and the number of counseling sessions have not increased significantly over the past three years across the four campuses, but most of this is due to a significant increase and a lack of ability to close schools. Is. Due to COVID.

“Comparatively there has not been a significant increase in the number of students receiving care. However, due to the continued shortage of staff, the demand for services is felt to be lacking amid the prolonged pandemic,” the report said.

Robinson puts it this way: “At UNH we started the semester with longer wait times than we’ve ever had. The first few weeks we had wait times as long as nine or 10 days, and we’ve never had anything like this.” Haven’t started the semester since. There’s usually no waiting time, and certainly never more than a week. Here at UNH it was really unprecedented.”

The backlog is mostly due to a 50 percent reduction in the number of counselors and therapists available for student counseling.

“Most counseling centers are not adequately staffed,” Robinson said. “Covid has resulted in such huge turnover that we started this academic year with 50 per cent staff, with six of the 12 full-time positions vacant. This is not unique to UNH. Therapists and counselors saw that they could have private practice from the comfort of their homes and make more money. We can’t compete with that.”

Everyone who needs the care of a licensed psychotherapist is waiting in a long line. “Psychiatry is so lacking in our state,” Robinson said. “Psychiatric appointments can take months.”

Keene State College Campus. Courtesy photo

no quick fix

According to data from the Mental Health and Campus Life Report, students in the USNH system who sought counseling primarily did so for family or academic distress, eating disorders, adjusting to college life, and family or relationship challenges . The most common presenting issues were anxiety, stress, depression, lack of motivation, disconnection, isolation and loneliness or grief/loss.

It all sounds predictable enough, but Robinson says something deeper is going on. The growing demand for mental health services is a trend that goes back at least 20 years, and was not caused by COVID, but was fueled by it.

“We’ve always had youth who were diagnosed with bipolar or psychosis, but those students are now able to do well in high school and be accepted into competitive institutions for IEPs (individualized education programs) and things like that, ” He said. “That’s a good thing. But I’m not sure our institutions keep up with the amount of wrap-around services students really need.

With no immediate solution to the staffing shortage, UNH has turned more and more to online services, launching a mental health and emotional wellness education campaign in the fall. connected Website, “How are you – really?” Includes links to self-assessment tools and resources.

UNH’s “How Are You?” Self-Assessment Tool graphic on landing page.

The UNH Psychological and Counseling Center offers personalized suicide prevention training called QPR (Question, Persuasion, Referral) for all faculty, staff and students. “We have 20 QPR instructors here, and they’ve been offering 60- or 90-minute training sessions for the past seven years,” Robinson said.

UNH has contracts with online services that provide 24-7 crisis counseling, including protocol and its allies, veltrack-connect (formerly known as Shrink Space). Keene, Plymouth, and Granite State contract for similar services from a mix of providers, including companies like UWill, Protocol, Kepro, WellTrack, and BetterHelp. Students would be better served by a system-wide agreement, according to the report.

“At UNH, we now have counselors available 24/7 on a hotline if you need it,” said Wayne Jones Jr., provost and vice president for academic affairs at UNH. “Those are resources that weren’t there five or 10 years ago, and we’ve had to add them.”

The problem, according to student advocates for the USNH Student Board, is that those investments have not been made in the same proportion as in the two other residential campuses, nor are all of the same services available to online students enrolled through Granite State College.

“The problem is that not all campuses are created equally,” Robinson said. “It’s a great campaign (how are you – really?). We need to do this in all of our system schools.”

“Not Where We Should Be”

According to Robinson, UNH is not one where psychological counseling is needed compared to other institutions of similar size, but the situation at Keene and Plymouth is worse.

“I’ve worked at three other counseling centers, so when I benchmark where UNH is, we can do much better. But within our system, we’re doing much better than Keene and Plymouth. So, students The point was a call for equity… There is an expectation that there is a baseline that is offered across all institutions. It should not be cookie-cutter, but there should be a baseline. All of our student time within our system deserve access to quality mental health care in a timely and responsive manner.

These types of services are funded through student fees. With a student population at least four times larger than its smaller peers, UNH is at a decided advantage, which some say should now be shared through the consolidation of services across campuses.

At a minimum, Robinson says, each campus should have its own brick-and-mortar counseling center, with protocols such as supplemental services contracts centralized throughout the system.

“It’s a way to introduce centralization,” she said. “But it’s an investment in the system. I ran the numbers. The system would have to be an investment of $350,000.”

Robinson researched the cost of consolidating services as part of his role on the USNH planning committee called The Behavior Roundtable. “It’s a system’s committee that meets at least once a semester or twice a year,” she said. “I’m on it and we’re having those conversations. If we can get buy-in and support from the system, that would be a good place to start. It doesn’t answer everything, but it’s the low-hanging fruit.” Is.

These articles are being shared by the partners at The Granite State News Collaborative. visit for more information

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