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For CUNY Students to Thrive, Mental Health Services Must Be Expanded

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The CUNY Chancellor and students (photo: @CUNY)

Graduating when the pandemic first hit New York City was hard for many students. To say that having access to a counselor during a time of increasing uncertainty and hopelessness was beneficial is an understatement - it was many students' lifeline. However, for countless students and peers, they are not so fortunate.

The effect of the last year on CUNY students can not be overstated. In a recent study that took place during the COVID-19 crisis, 40% of students said they felt depressed, anxious or “on edge,” roughly a 100% spike. Going through college while living through a pandemic is hard enough - now, more than ever, students deserve accessible and affordable mental health counseling, especially as we work to heal from the trauma caused by the covid crisis.

We can’t afford to wait any longer to remedy this glaring problem for our CUNY and SUNY students. A lack of these services has a negative effect on student’s academics, as mental health problems, especially depression and anxiety, are a leading health cause of college failure and dropout at CUNY. In fact, according to a survey conducted by CUNY, 55% of students with depression, 52% of those with anxiety disorders, and 58% of those with moderate or severe psychological distress report that their mental health symptoms interfere with their school work somewhat, moderately, or a lot. These staggering numbers demonstrate how crucial it is that these students have reliable access to support networks for the benefit of their health and their studies.  

We must take action now to expand the mental health services that these students require to ensure that our schools are safe spaces for young people to get the support they need. That’s why, as part of the CUNY New Deal, Senator Gounardes introduced a bill to ensure that CUNY campuses are required to staff an adequate number of licensed, mental health professionals in order to meet the specific needs of their unique student populations.

With this bill, each CUNY campus will be required to establish a board of experts and advisors within two years to study and make updates to the clinician-to-student ratio. Additionally, recommendations will be made every five years to update the ratio, which won’t be allowed to fall below a minimum of a 1-to-1,000 clinician-to-student ratio. This bill reflects our commitment to the services that bolster student’s well-being, and provides a foundation for our teachers and the school community to value their experiences, as well as their dreams for the future. Finally, we are one step closer to giving students the support services they deserve.

But the timing here is crucial. As this year’s legislative session draws to a close, this bill must get passed if we are to expedite the support and care our students need for their mental health and academic success.

In fact, in the state budget passed in April, CUNY and SUNY received a budget allocation of over $1 billion in new capital funding. If we’re unable to pass this bill with the remaining time left in the session, it’s imperative that these institutions take affirmative steps to address this pervasive problem on their campuses. We can’t afford inaction on this issue, no matter what the avenue for recourse is.

There needs to be an understanding that college success is not dependent solely on academic outcome, but on addressing students holistically, ensuring necessary supports are widely accessible and high-quality so students can be successful. Students are not cogs in a machine - they have basic needs. College can be the most social time of your life, but it can also be very stressful and challenging in many ways, even without a pandemic.

And when you’re isolated during a pandemic and learning solely remotely, it’s very, very difficult to navigate a time of pressure and stress, and a myriad of mental health consequences can ensue. 

The pandemic has exacerbated the mental health needs of students, with many reporting anxiety, depression, and an increased need for mental health services. Even if it feels like we’re starting to move back into a normal phase, many are still suffering and learning to deal with the trauma of the last year. Every day can be a struggle for students facing stress, anxiety, and depression, which is only made worse when it goes untreated or unrecognized. For the safety and well-being of our students, it’s imperative that the state legislature take action to pass this bill so that we can alleviate the anguish these students face.

We know that increasing mental health counselors and making them more accessible will help ease those struggles by ensuring adequate resources for those taking on the normal stress of college life compounded by the pandemic. Many students have made it through the beginning stages of a pandemic and graduated because they were able to get the help and support they needed, yet there are so many others who were not, and that is unacceptable.

Mental health issues can have dire impacts for college student’s academic successes, and in more serious cases can lead to physical harm from suicide and depression. For many of these students, mental health services on campus are the only affordable and available option. The passage of this bill would be a lifeline for students with limited options who are at significant risk.

Students enrolled on CUNY campuses pay a fee for mental health services, but the reported staffing ratios are in excess of one mental health clinician to over 2,000 students. For reference, the national average across college campuses is 1-to-1,250. Research also shows that low-income students are more likely to suffer from mental health illnesses, and CUNY campuses have a higher share of low-income, urban students than at other colleges and universities. 

To add stressors to this crisis, over the last year, approximately one in four adults have been food insecure citywide, and one in five renters are behind on their housing payments. For many during the final semester of college, all of these mental health issues were heightened because of unemployment due to massive layoffs and hiring freezes, housing and food insecurity, and to add on, the rise in anti-Asian sentiments and violence. These added burdens place an even higher strain on students who may not be able to focus on receiving their degree due to these worries they face in their personal lives. For these reasons and more, we have a collective responsibility to support the mental well-being of all students by passing this bill and getting more counselors on campus. 

Trauma is more than just a mental health issue - it’s an education issue. That’s why referring students with trauma to a school counselor or other mental health resources is a vitally important practice. When students are supported, their work is exponentially better. They can thrive. By strengthening counseling services, we’re letting students know it’s okay to ask for help, to reach out to someone who they can talk to and to make sure they know that they don’t have to go at it alone. 

We’ve heard from students that, previously, nine CUNY campuses had waitlists for mental health services, one of which was nine months long, and 12 campuses had a limit on visits, with some visitations being capped at as few as just six. It should never take such an extended time of a personal, life-threatening crisis to finally get a counselor to connect with. That shouldn’t be the case for anyone reaching out for mental health support.

College students are already an increasingly vulnerable population when it comes to mental health, and they now face even greater risk due to this unprecedented year of grief and quarantine. As we reflect on the isolation, anxiety and trauma of the last year, it’s clear that we must make the investment of support, commitment, and care for our students right now, so that we can build the foundation for a hopeful future. I urge our legislators to pass this bill, because academics can wait, but mental health cannot.

Andrew Gounardes is a State Senator representing parts of southern Brooklyn. Lisa Nishimura is a Policy Fellow with Young Invincibles and a recent graduate of John Jay College, a senior college of CUNY. Juvanie Piquant is the CUNY Student Trustee/USS Chair. On Twitter @Sen_Gounardes & @juvaniepiquant.

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