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Advocates say New York college students need mental health support

Tracy Lee for NPR

The Mental Health Association in New York State is calling for public policies around mental wellness to better support college students.

John Richter, director of public policy for the statewide agency, said increasing awareness around mental health conditions and disabilities in college students could also help reduce stigma —which in turn could lead to changing attitudes and creating a more supportive environment.

“Generally speaking, when people know more about mental health, and they talk about it more, things like stigma get reduced. And stigma is a huge barrier to people getting help,” Richter said.

Last year, the American College Health Association found that about 48% of college students reported moderate or severe psychological distress and one in four had considered suicide.

 John Richter is the director of public policy for MHANYS
John Richter is the director of public policy for MHANYS

Richter proposes changing the public health code so that when a student takes a leave of absence due to a mental health condition, they are treated like students doing the same for a physical health condition. He said that doesn’t always happen now.

“An example is of students coming back to campus and being required to sign papers to promise that they wouldn't do themself harm, or they wouldn't try to kill themselves, and sort of a draconian way of responding to those kinds of needs,” he said.

State Sen. Samra Brouk, chair of the Senate’s mental health committee, said this kind of inequity is pervasive in other aspects of society as well — from schools to offices to health insurance coverage.

“Many things that we allow and invest in for someone's physical health, we simply ignore when it comes to their mental health,” Brouk said.

In December, the U.S. surgeon general issued an advisory highlighting an urgent need to address a national youth mental health crisis.

Bourk said that while there are other concrete ways to establish a stronger foundation of mental health care at universities in the state, some are out of reach — like enforcing a set ratio of mental health counselors per capita on a campus.

“Even if we had a bill that said, ‘here's the ratio of providers that a college needs to have now,’ I know very well that we don't have the workforce in our state right now to fulfill that,” Brouk said, “which means to me that those students are not getting the help they need this year or next year.”

State Sen. Anna Kaplan is sponsoring a bill that would require state universities in the SUNY and CUNY system to improve mental health policies, including administering surveys to students, establishing a committee, and providing training to faculty and staff.

“For too long, our state has fallen short when it comes to providing for the mental health needs of college students across New York,” Kaplan said in a statement. “With the pandemic exacerbating this issue to crisis level, more must be done to get young people the help that they need.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255.

Copyright 2022 WXXI News. To see more, visit WXXI News.

Noelle E. C. Evans