A new coalition at the University of Connecticut is calling for expanded mental health resources and better support in the wake of two student deaths by suicide on the Storrs campus this winter.
“It really haunts me,” said Brittany Diaz, an undergraduate at UConn Hartford who did not know the students who died in December and January.
Diaz, Kanu Caplash, a member of UConn’s undergraduate student government and Xingyi Chen, founder of the International Student Advisory Board, have formed the Mental Health Coalition, a new student group to advocate for increasing resources and changing policy across UConn’s main and regional campuses.
The coalition’s requests to UConn administrators include hiring a more diverse counseling center staff, expanding facilities and hours for mental health services and increasing availability of specialized care.
According to data from the Associated Press, the number of students receiving mental health services at UConn increased by more than 50 percent in the five year ending in 2018, from 1,888 to 2,933. The number of mental health appointments increased by nearly 49 percent. The average wait time for non-crisis individual therapy intake appointments was was 15 days in 2017-18.
That increase has come as part of rising demand for mental health treatment on campuses across the United States. The AP review of data from 39 public universities found that since 2014, the number of students receiving mental health treatment grew by 35 percent.
The UConn administration says it’s responding with added resources and progams. But President Thomas Katsouleas noted in an email to students last week that colleges cannot “simply hire our way out of” the student mental health crisis.
“Equally important is the culture we must create around mental health and well-being on our campuses,” he said.
UConn has “hired six additional full-time clinical positions and launched a case management model for each of the regional campuses,” Katsouleas wrote.
Other colleges in Connecticut, public and private, have addressed the rising mental health demands. And the Generral Assembly formed a task force last year, which this month rolled out recommendations to develop “communities of support.”
At UConn, more than 4,800 people have signed an online petition launched in December by UConn’s chapter of the national nonprofit Active Minds, calling for added funding for mental health services. Some identified themselves as students or parents of UConn students, and described long wait times and being sent off campus for services.
In the petition, Active Minds president Alexandra Schaible mentioned UConn’s $100 million Student Recreation Center and $17 million exit fee to leave the American Athletic Conference early. “Why does there always seem to be money for the ‘important things,’ but not for mental health?” she wrote.
Chen, who is from China, said international students face unique barriers to seeking mental health care, including cultural stigmas and financial challenges. “The lack of multilingual and diverse therapists becomes another issue,” she said.
According to the UConn counseling staff website, five employees offer bilingual services: four in Spanish and one in Chinese.
At regional campuses, resources and staff are stretched thinner than at the main campus in Storrs, Diaz said.
Annastasia Martineau, president of NAMI on Campus UConn, a chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said some students are calling for more funding in UConn’s state budget allocation to expand Student Health and Wellness staffing.
Students are expected to bring their concerns about mental health services to UConn’s Board of Trustees later this month.
In his Feb. 12 email to students, Katsouleas wrote that in the fall, the university joined with the JED Foundation, a nonprofit that works on mental health and suicide prevention programs. UConn “embarked on a multi-year strategic effort” to assess existing mental health efforts and “areas for growth,” Katsouleas said.
That will include administering a “Healthy Minds Study” to a sample of 12,000 students this month.
He has also formed a presidential task force, whose responsibilities include “identifying priorities for best practice and expansion of care,” he said.
Connecticut College in New London and Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport have also partnered with the JED Foundation and awareness is rising generally.
“I listen to my university colleagues talk about their models, and certainly where the Connecticut community colleges are right now is so far away from that,” said Joseph Navarra, Coordinator of Disability Services at Manchester Community College. Most do not have counseling centers, he said.
Other recommendations to increase students’ access to mental health support include informing students about telehealth services and building relationships with community mental health providers to increase options. Schools should take steps to increase awareness of on-campus resources, and faculty and mental health providers should work together on classroom education, the statd task force said.
The task force recommends that the state “invest in an assessment tool” for colleges to determine their successes and weaknesses, and suggested that it be done through the Office of Higher Education. Ultimately, “comprehensive” campus assessments should be completed regularly, every three or four years, the group recommended.
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