JEFFERSON CITY — Before she started college, two of Mary Hart's uncles committed suicide.
As a sophomore at MU, one of her best friends reached out to her for help, knowing Hart was a member of the Mizzou Student Suicide Prevention Coalition. Hart guided her to the MU Counseling Center, where she was told she would have to wait two months for an appointment.
Within those two months, Hart found her unconscious in her car, after a suicide attempt.
"I can't describe to you the feeling of finding your friend and thinking she's dead," Hart said.
Hart's friend is now doing better, but wait times and understaffing at university counseling centers across the state have seen little improvement.
Now a junior at MU, Hart shared her story Wednesday at a hearing of the Missouri House Committee on Health and Mental Health Policy. The committee was hearing testimony on HB 920, which would seek to establish standards and guidelines for higher education mental health services. Dozens of students filled the hearing room in support.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Keith Frederick, R-Rolla, is the product of a year-long grassroots effort by the Associated Students of the University of Missouri, a student lobbyist organization. It would not set specific standards for mental health services, but would require the establishment of such standards, such as student-to-staff ratios and average wait times before initial appointments.
At MU, the bill would apply to both the MU Counseling Center and Behavioral Health services through the Student Health Center.
Steven Chaffin, executive director of the student group, said students have been in discussions with the Departments of Higher Education and Mental Health, trying to establish who would best fit the responsibility of setting the guidelines. A proposed amendment on the bill would delegate it to the Coordinating Board of Higher Education, but Chaffin said the bill is still a work in progress.
The ultimate goal would be to bring together administrators and counselors to create the standards and "figure out something that is not only going to solve this problem, but that is also going to be realistic for these universities," Chaffin said.
Chaffin said wait times for an initial appointment in university counseling centers can sometimes reach up to two months, a huge amount of time for students. The potential consequences of waiting that long for help could include missing large amounts of class, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol and even suicide.
Last semester, six MU students committed suicide, Chelsea Spence, an intern with ASUM, said. According to research by Partners in Prevention, about 17 percent of university students in Missouri said they have had suicidal thoughts.
Longer wait periods also affect students’ recovery process. Quicker intervention with any mental health problem tends to have a better prognosis, said Paul Polychronis, director of the University of Central Missouri Counseling Center.
"Counseling centers, when adequately funded, make a huge difference," Chaffin said. "While the prevalence of mental health issues has increased, substantive support for counseling centers has not."
Rep. John Wiemann, R-O'Fallon, said that while he sees the value in mental health services, he worried that universities are too liberal in encouraging students to seek help.
For example, Wiemann referenced a tweet from the MU Student Health Center following elections in November. The tweet encouraged students to seek help if they felt "stressed or anxious" over the election.
"It seems to me that they're trying to encourage people to come whether they need it or not," Wiemann said, "maybe manufacturing reasons for them to come and seek some counseling services, for whatever issue it may be."
While there certainly are students feeling anxiety over the results of the November election, Chaffin said, "to say that that is the reason that students are actually seeking out these services is simply false."
"I think when you actually look at students who are using the Counseling Center, and the reasons why they're using it, you see that the large, vast majority of people actually utilizing the services. They're not going in saying, 'I saw this email.' It's things that they've been wrestling with for a long time," Chaffin said.
Wiemann also questioned Chaffin on the financial impact the bill could bring to students and universities. At the moment, the bill would cost the state an estimated $68,000, but the amount is flexible, Frederick said. However, the bill does not account for what it would cost universities to meet whatever standards are set.
Chaffin offered the solution of combining university and state funding to improve mental health care.
"That’s all fine and dandy, but in the real world, in the business world, they pass those costs on," Wiemann said. "Whenever you mandate something or tell someone to do something, they’re like, ‘Fine, we’ll do it. We’ll just charge the consumer more money."
Chaffin did point out that students have been known to step up and "take part of the bill" for things like mental health care, such as with the passing of the Student Services Enhancement Fee in March. The $35 per semester fee, which passed with 79 percent of the vote, included an $8 allotment for the MU Counseling Center.
But while the measure was voted on by students, Wiemann saw it as another way of shifting the burden.
"As a parent who has a child at a university, I wasn’t asked about that, even though I’m paying the bills," Wiemann said. "There is a cost that’s going to be incurred, and it’s probably going to be the students or parents with that bill. It’s not a zero sum game here."
When researching for the bill, student advocates asked counseling centers throughout the state what they need. Meeting the number of counseling staff needed statewide would cost about $1 million, for all higher education institutions combined.
Polychronis said the state should look at mental health as an investment and an extension of the public health system.
"It’s a way of securing Missouri’s investment in our future," Polychronis said. "Counseling centers are really instrumental in the retention of students and helping them complete their degrees and be successful in the start of their careers."
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