Sunday, February 5, 2012

Funding Campus Mental Health Services

There is simply no question that most administrators of college mental health service report significant increases in both the number of students presenting for treatment as well as the severity of their concerns at intake.  A recent survey indicates that 91% report increasing severity, yet 46% report developing a wait list for services due to clinical demands and 88% report concerns that many students do not receive the services they need (see for more information).  Virtually no one disagrees that student access to such services is a good idea or is needed.  At least, that is, no one who is rational.

So why is it that many campuses struggle in the provision of these services?  In this case a complex problem has a simple root cause: poor funding models and the thinking that leads to them.  This is not terribly different from the root cause of inadequate mental health services for the population in general, be it in the United States or elsewhere.  One major difference, however, is that it is within the power of many higher education institutions to properly fund these services, and to do so with deliberate speed.

Many campus mental health services are funded through a student fee, such as a health or services fee, which may or may not be embedded in tuition.  The amount of this fee may or may not be even visible or known to the administrators who oversee service delivery.  When the fee is known, it often pales miserably compared to other service fees, such as those collected for career or student recreation services.  An implicit reason for this disparity is beguilingly plain: institutions sometimes feel the other services can be easily marketed to new students and their families.  And this is very true.  Prospective students and families want what they perceive as amenities for their tuition dollar.  Can't blame them for that.  Mental health just doesn't sell.

Or so some think.  Peel back the curtain a little and one immediately sees problems with this logic.  Being happy and productive is, in the end, the only thing that sells.  A progressive thinker knows that today's college student needs all manner of services if our goal is to produce a sound, competent and productive citizen.  An institution's long term survival in fact depends on this, at least to a significant degree.  Being transparent in acknowledging this need will not damage sustainability; rather it will enhance it significantly.  This transparency is what leads progressive administrators to appropriately resource a wide range of services.  As evidence I submit the top tier of college mental health services in such states as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.  There are others.  These states have faced the same recession and consequent budgetary crises as all the other states, so one cannot attribute all funding choices to those influences alone.

The top tier can thank progressive thinking for their circumstances.  Simply put, it is courage or the lack thereof that determines funding models for college mental health services.  It is time we insist on this courage in our leaders.