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SUNY considers 24/7 mental health telecounseling

March 29, 2017 | By Bethany Bump

The State University of New York found something alarming, but not entirely surprising, when it commissioned a task force to study mental health issues across its 64 campuses two summers ago.

Nearly half of the more than 19,000 students who responded to a survey reported having an anxiety disorder. More than one-third of the students reported having depression. And more than one-quarter indicated they had some other significant mental health disorder, including but not limited to schizophrenia, and bipolar, dissociative, eating, obsessive-compulsive and post-traumatic stress disorders.

“The need was vast,” said Dr. Riccardo Azziz, chief officer of Academic Health and Hospital Affairs for SUNY. “And we knew it was affecting retention and graduation.”

Over an 18-month investigation, the task force was also able to confirm what members had long suspected — that every campus was having trouble keeping up with the demand for help, whether through full-fledged counseling centers or advising and referral services.

In hopes of meeting the demand statewide, SUNY trustees voted this month to move forward with a $1.5 million plan to pilot a telecounseling program at five campuses this fall with a goal of eventually expanding the service to every campus. The program would rely on trained mental health professionals at SUNY’s four health centers to provide support via phone or video to students who are in crisis and can’t get an appointment nearby.

“We know problems and crises don’t confine themselves to a 9-to-5 schedule,” said Paul Marthers, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management and student success at SUNY. “As these technologies become more refined, what really is the difference between sitting across the room from someone or talking to them on a screen? That’s how most of the kids on our campuses communicate already.”

The idea was developed by the task force with help from the SUNY Board of Trustees Student Life Committee, which formed last fall to provide the system’s governing body with perspective and policy input directly from students.

“We sent a survey to our student leaders last summer and asked … what issues do you care about? What should we advocate for? And we heard, of course, about affordability, about increasing community college funding, but at the very top of the list for everyone was mental health resources,” said SUNY Student Assembly President Marc Cohen. “The need is just so great.”

The telecounseling plan won the support of Sen. Kenneth LaValle, who helped get a $1.5 million appropriation into the Senate’s one-house budget this month. It remains to be seen whether the final state budget, due Friday, will include the funding.

SUNY is also seeking grant funding for the project from the New York State Health Foundation’s Special Projects Fund, with hopes of getting a pilot running at five campuses by September. The campuses have not been selected, officials said.

“This is a relatively inexpensive way to make a huge change on our campuses,” Cohen said. “If this pilot works the way we hope it will, it will be responsible for creating a shared network of counseling services across our 64 campuses.”

At SUNY Adirondack, a two-year college in the North Country, the number of students who made a counseling appointment increased 8 percent from 1,095 in fall 2015 to 1,187 in fall 2016. That represents 12 percent of the student body.

At SUNY Cobleskill in rural Schoharie County, the need is even greater — with one out of every five students seeking mental health services in a given year.

Resources to serve these students vary by campus, the task force found.

SUNY’s four-year colleges usually house counseling and health centers that are staffed by certified professionals. Community colleges, which have fewer resources and often no students living on campus, offer advising or referral services. The ratio of mental health professionals to students at SUNY campuses varies from 1 to 1,000 to 1 to 5,000, the task force found. The ideal is 1 to 1,400.

A nationwide shortage of psychiatrists is also affecting college campuses, said Estela Rivero, director of counseling and psychological services at the University at Albany.

“There are insufficient mental health resources nationwide, whether you’re looking on college campuses or in communities,” she said. “We’re all struggling to keep up with the need.”

At UAlbany, the number of students seeking counseling services has grown more than 40 percent over the past five years to 1,500, she said. That represents 8.5 percent of the student body.

Because the need is likely higher than the data show, the university has made attempts in recent years to expand services and educational programming for both mental and behavioral health issues (drug, alcohol addiction). Last year, nearly 37,000 students were served in some way by these programs.

“Some people always mention cost, as if the cost is a reason not to expand services,” Rivero said. “But it makes sense from an economic perspective to provide students with mental health services. Studies show they will do better academically, are more likely to finish college, and get better jobs with better salaries. You’re producing more productive members of society.”

Timesunion.com

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