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Frontline: State legislature undervalues Western students' need for mental health services

Suzanna Leung

The number of students utilizing Western’s counseling center doubled from 2011 to 2016, according to data the univeristy reported to The National College Health Assessment survey. Unfortunately, the school’s limited resources have not caught up with the rising demand.

“Dark Days,” an article from The Western Front’s online-exclusive series produced by students in an advanced reporting class, showed that Western’s Counseling Center has not been operating in accordance with the International Association of Counseling Service’s recommendations. The recommended student-to-staff ratio for an institution of Western’s size is one clinical staff member per 1,000 to 1,500 students. But Western’s Counseling Center is understaffed, with a ratio of one counselor for every 1,700 students.

In an interview from “Dark Days,” Counseling Center Director Shari Robinson reported the average number of sessions the center is able to offer students is 3.5.  Robinson said if the counseling center were to give students an unlimited amount of sessions, it would only be able to see 2 to 3 percent of students.

Currently, the center is only able to provide brief on-campus counseling for 11 to 12 percent of students.

A big part of this issue involves a lack of state funding for counseling services.

Western lobbied for a Student Success and Achievement package in the past year, a request for an additional $5.8 million for student success and enhanced equity, diversity and inclusion programs. The school wanted to allocate $3.4 million of the package to support proactive advising and tutoring, entry-level math courses, students with disabilities and mental health services.

On June 30, the legislature passed Western’s package, but not without compromise. The $3.4 million that Western had initially requested for student success was reduced to $1 million.

It is extremely important that Western receives the proper funding from the state to support counseling programs for students.

We understand there are other legislative priorities that also require state funding, but providing sufficient funding to counseling centers on campus is imperative to student success.

The increasing demand for counseling services has been a growing concern on college campuses across the nation. Students are finding themselves in a stressful environment, filled with big life decisions and heavy course loads that could determine future success.

The National College Health Assessment survey by the American College Health Association from fall 2016 found 39.1 percent of undergraduate students reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function at least once in the past year. The survey also found 61.9 percent of students had experienced overwhelming anxiety, and 11.2 percent reported they had seriously contemplated suicide in the past year.

Comparatively, 18.5 percent of adults in the United States experience any form of mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

In order to treat these students, colleges need to provide sufficient counseling services.

The Center for Collegiate Mental Health also collected data from 93 different colleges and found a 29.6 percent increase in students seeking counseling services from the 2009-10 academic year to the 2014-15 academic year.

With the rising demand for mental health services on campuses, the state needs to provide more funding so the university can increase counseling services on campus to meet the needs of students. Allowing Western's Counseling Center to go understaffed hurts students and staff within the center, as well as the overall climate at Western.

The legislature may have given Western $1 million in additional funding, but that money is split between five different areas of need for student success. This is not enough to fix the disparity between students and counselors.

In comparison, the legislature allocated $1.52 million to Washington State University to research elk hoof disease. If the state can invest in the health of elk hooves, it can surely provide more funding for the mental health of its students.

Robinson hopes to embed counselors in residence halls and form more group therapy sessions to serve more students. To do this, Western needs to hire more counselors so they are more readily available throughout the campus. However, once again, this can’t happen if Western does not receive the proper funding from the state.

It is extremely difficult for many students to gather up the courage to see a mental health specialist because of our society’s stigma toward those experiencing mental illnesses, and when students finally are able to see a counselor, it can be discouraging to be told your resources are limited.

Sarah Cederberg, a Western student interviewed in “Dark Days,” detailed her difficulties with seeking help from the counseling center. She said at first, she reasoned against seeking help, but when she finally did and was referred to an off-campus provider she was discouraged by the distance and cost.

“[The counseling center] is close,” she said. “And I didn’t really want to go to the counseling center either. I did it because I needed to.”

This is the experience of many students seeking counseling on campus.

If the legislature truly cared about the success of its students, it would provide the resources they need to be successful.

To read more about Western's counseling center and the need for more funding and resources read "Dark Days" by clicking here.

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