The Depression Grand Challenge. Free mental health screenings. Mini-horses at Powell Library during finals week.
UCLA and the University of California have really prioritized students’ mental health services lately, they say, pointing to these amenities. Looking at the budget and staff sizes of psychological services at UC campuses even seems to prove their claims.
But there is one overlooked element when analyzing the mental health services that a university provides: the kind of staff it hires and its budget allocations.
A California state legislature bill aimed to address that very issue by looking at what kind of staff university psychological centers are hiring and ensuring they are keeping up with rising student enrollment. Senate Bill 968 would have mandated a ratio of one mental health professional to 1,500 students across all universities receiving state funding. The International Association of Counseling Services advises there to be one professional for every 1,000 to 1,500 students. However, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill, saying specific ratios should be determined by the individual college rather than the state.
This decision will have serious ramifications as enrollment at the UC increases.
Although the counselor-to-student ratio across the UC campuses is one to 1,150, which is within SB 968′s guidelines, there is no accountability to ensure that this ratio is maintained. And as enrollment at the UC is expected to increase by 15,000 students from the start of this academic year, it’s hard to believe that a five percent increase in student service fees will be able to help the University keep up with this ratio. The UC also has not prioritized hiring more qualified staff, like psychiatrists and therapists, in face of growing costs and higher student enrollment.
UC spokesperson Danielle Smith said the bill was expensive and would have cost the University approximately $10 million by the fifth year after its implementation.
The way Smith framed the issue indicates the UC has no intention to come up with that money. Additionally, the money the UC has allocated for mental health services comes from student fees, which puts the burden on the backs of students.
Smith added the UC Board of Regents approved a five percent increase in annual student fees from 2015 to 2020 to expand mental health services systemwide. Approximately 50 percent of this increase is allocated to the hiring of mental health providers, she said. This is in addition to campus-specific student fees, such as the #UCLAwellness Referendum, which students passed in 2016 to mitigate lack of funding for counseling services at UCLA.
And while the UC emphasizes how its ratio of counselors to students is within guidelines, it glosses over who it hires.
Psychological centers have different levels of mental health professionals equipped to handle different student needs. Counselors, for example, are able to handle brief screenings and one-on-one appointments in nonsevere cases. Therapists are a level above, handling more serious cases where students need intensive psychological services. Psychiatrists, who are doctors with the ability to prescribe medication, are the top tier, meeting only with students with mental health issues that could warrant medication.
The UC does not care about the difference between the qualifications of the mental health staff it hires, complains that $10 million for these services is too much, and is complacent because of its reliance on student fee increases to fund counseling centers – all pointing to how little of a priority mental health is for the UC.
Although just hiring counselors certainly can help students going through stress, students in more pressing crises need to be able to meet with more experienced staff, which there are fewer of. The UC can increase student fees to cover mental health services all day long, but unless the funds are directed toward hiring more staff who are able to handle serious mental health issues, the UC will only continue to offer subpar services to students.
What will likely happen is the University will increase student fees again, like it did in 2014, to barely maintain an adequate number of psychological staff on campus. Or worse, due to the lack of accountability, psychological services will end up being even more understaffed, especially when it comes to hiring psychiatrists. In the end, students who need comprehensive mental health services are likely to be left behind.
The failure of SB 968 to pass indicates the need to hold university counseling centers accountable, which the UC seems unwilling and unable to do.
Student mental health has been a priority for the UC, and slapping on Band-Aids like slight budget increases, mental health screenings and a few more counselors changes little.
The University needs to put a new focus on institutional change and make it a priority to hire qualified, high-level staff. Mini-horses or puppies on campus during finals week aren’t enough to solve the UC’s mental health crisis.