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Pushed by City Council, CUNY Announces Additional Student Mental Health Services

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CUNY counseling services (photo: City University of New York (CUNY))

When Anna Compton transferred to CUNY Hunter College, she often felt extremely anxious during her first semester. As a student with a disability who receives personalized accommodations, known as an Individualized Education Program, and with a history of depression and anxiety, Compton decided to reach out to the college’s Counseling and Wellness Services office, but like many other CUNY students, she was placed on a four-to-six-week waitlist to meet with a mental health professional.

Compton’s story is not unique. She was among several students who shared similar experiences at a joint hearing on Friday of the New York City Council’s Committee on Higher Education and Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities, and Addiction, chaired by City Council Members Inez Barron and Diana Ayala, respectively. The hearing was focused on the issues and concerns surrounding mental health resources available to CUNY students during this particularly tumultuous year.

CUNY serves a majority of low-income, racial and ethnic minority students, from the same communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus. The COVID-19 pandemic has been linked to many stressors that college students are facing like the loss of loved ones, fear of contracting the virus, financial burdens, the switch to remote instruction and other factors. These stressors have brought attention to the dire need for college mental health services, especially at a time when students are transitioning into adulthood and are more likely to develop mental illnesses, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

In her testimony, Compton detailed the frustrating hurdles she faced in receiving care including insurance issues, no callbacks and long waitlists for intake appointments which didn’t guarantee regular sessions. After a limited number of counseling sessions, Compton was referred to therapists off-campus. Compton returned to the campus counseling services office three times for guidance but was met with the same list of references that had yet to respond to her. “When the pandemic hit in March, I was at a point of desperation. Distance learning as a student with a learning disability was my biggest nightmare and I just wanted someone to listen,” she said at the hearing. “It took me eight months to find a therapist through these references. Eight months!”

Compton’s experiences navigating mental health resources are common at CUNY, where waitlists are long and counseling sessions are limited to about six visits. With the switch to remote learning amid the pandemic, the counseling centers operate fully online through Zoom with one-on-one and group sessions. “We need more mental health counselors to work with students with disabilities, students who are food or housing insecure, students of color and LGBTQ students,” Compton said. “We needed this before the pandemic and we certainly need it now.”

Deficiencies in the mental health services offered CUNY students appeared to be well-known, but not dealt with until the City Council was set to call CUNY leadership in for the public oversight hearing several weeks into the new, almost exclusively online, off-campus semester.

Minutes before the hearing began, CUNY announced that the university plans to spend $5 million by January 2021 on expanding mental health services. CUNY’s 18 senior and community colleges will receive $278,000 each with options to hire more staff, train current staff, or use a variety of digital platforms. The university also plans to roll out a crisis texting service that connects students with crisis counselors. About 10% of the allocation will be used to train and certify 120 clinical counselors on online counseling.

At the hearing, City Council members heard testimony from students, CUNY officials, and advocacy groups about CUNY’s counseling services. Students criticized the long waitlists, limited sessions, lack of outreach from counseling services, and referrals to off-campus counselors, and stressed the critical need for resources for the wellbeing and academic success of students. Officials from the university provided clarity surrounding services and counselors while acknowledging problems with them.

Council Member Barron, a Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the Council's higher education committee and is a Hunter alumna, emphasized the racial disparities that exist in higher education and how they can exacerbate mental health issues. Students of color, she said, have to deal with issues such as poverty, increased violence, and being in a new and unfamiliar setting without guidance. “These stresses, which often crop up at an age when mental illness is known to develop at a higher rate, are a perfect storm for the developments of anxiety disorder, depression and other mental illnesses,” Barron said in her opening remarks.

Even before the pandemic, there was a large need for mental health services at CUNY, according to a 2018 Healthy CUNY survey. The survey examined a representative sample of CUNY community college and four-year college students, and estimated that 40,000 undergraduate students reported symptoms of depression, about 48,000 reported symptoms of anxiety disorders, and about 41,000 reported symptoms associated with moderate or severe psychological distress. Over half of all those students reported that their mental health symptoms negatively impact their school work. Low-income students with household incomes under $30,000 a year reported higher levels of depression, anxiety, and psychological distress than their peers.

According to the report, in 2019 there were 21 campuses with a mental health counseling center, which employed 116 full-time mental health professionals in sum. Currently, there are 108 full-time mental health professionals employed throughout 23 of the 25 campuses, with the remaining two campuses sharing other CUNY counseling centers, according to Ryan Camire, director of Mental Health & Wellness at CUNY, who testified at the hearing. All 108 professionals are licensed mental health providers in the fields of social work, psychology, creative arts therapy, or mental health counseling with over six years of experience and a few are nurse practitioners and psychiatrists.

The 2018 report also found that staffing levels are inadequate across the system. “Staffing levels range from one to ten professionals per campus, with several campuses and the university as a whole falling short of the professional to student ratio recommended by college mental health professional organizations,” the report stated. CUNY’s student to mental health counselor ratio is 2,400:1 which is higher than the recommended 1,500:1 ratio by mental health experts. At one CUNY college, the ratio goes up to 6,009:1, said Denise Maybank, interim vice president for student affairs and services, at the hearing. “That is not where we want to be. We can’t afford to be at 1 to 6,009 under any set of circumstances in order to meet the needs of our students. Additional resources are necessary,” she said.

Barbara Bowen, President of the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY, the faculty and staff union, told the City Council that the underlying issue is that the structure and staffing of mental health services at CUNY are simply not adequate. “No matter how wonderful and dedicated those counselors are, if they are working at three times the number of students they should be seeing, that means they cannot serve students as well as they want to and as they are trained to do,” she said.

At John Jay College of Criminal Justice, there is no waitlist to speak with a counselor, according to the Director of Counseling Services Dr. Gerard Bryant. “Currently, no John Jay student is ever turned away,” he said. There are seven full-time professionals and five part-time professionals at the center, with a majority being people of color. According to fall 2019 enrollment data, John Jay had 16,000 students and 12 counselors, making the ratio 1,300:1 which is lower than the recommended minimum 1,500:1. However, that is not the case at every CUNY college, specifically those with more admitted students like Hunter, Queens, Baruch, and City Tech.

Wait times vary at different counseling centers and the staffing at individual campuses and the amount of admitted students affects those times, according to Camire. “No student will get turned away if they are in an emergency or urgent situation,” he insisted. He also said that centers distribute emergency service contacts and refer students to NYCWell, the city’s free and confidential crisis intervention, information and referral service for those seeking mental health help as well as other outside providers. However, when Hunter senior Compton was asked by Council Member Ayala whether Hunter’s center referred her to NYCWell, city government's mental health helpline spearheaded by the de Blasio administration and especially First Lady Chirlane McCray, she said no.

The center also did not check-in or follow-up with Compton after referring her to outside therapists, whereas at John Jay, Dr. Bryant said their counseling center does keep in contact with those students. Council Member Ayala suggested the university should track where those students go and follow-up with them after referral. “There is no such thing as a perfect system but we have to be open to the idea of reevaluating those systems to ensure efficiency,” she said.

Like Compton, Diana Valenzuela, a student at Bronx Community College currently attending on-campus counseling services, also faced issues accessing care. Although she did not have issues securing an appointment, “the sessions at times felt like it was going more through like a scripted dialogue,” she said, “instead of addressing my stressors one by one so that I may effectively eliminate them. These counseling sessions are failing to address the circumstances.”

Levels of depression and anxiety symptoms are much higher among CUNY students compared to last year due to COVID-19, a study by the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies found. About 50% of all CUNY students surveyed reported depression and 41% reported anxiety this April, during the height of the pandemic. The impact is greater in urban settings like the city, the study states, where “racial and ethnic minorities and immigrant populations have significantly less access to stable housing, livable wages, and physical and mental health resources compared to majority groups, putting them at a higher risk for adverse mental health consequences in the wake of traumatic experiences.”

About 53% of all students reported COVID-19 as a high stressor, and 31% reported it as a medium stressor. Virus related experiences, “such as unemployment, the death of a family member or close friend, receiving a positive COVID‐19 diagnosis, increased problems with friend(s) and/or family, and difficulty paying monthly rent, all of which are more likely to occur within the context of income insecurity and societal marginalization, increased the odds of both depression and anxiety symptoms among respondents,” the study states.

During the hearing, Juvanie Piquant, the newly-appointed chairperson of the University Student Senate at CUNY, said investing in CUNY is crucial. “This did not begin when the COVID-19 pandemic began, but this has been years of systemic disinvestment,” she said.

Piquant also pointed to the recent Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and racism that rocked the nation this summer. “I definitely would be remiss if I didn't mention what is going on socially in our society here today,” Piquant said during her closing remarks. “We see the injustices of what is occurring in our communities and everyday lives. Students are on the front lines, fighting for justice and equality for everyday people. The majority of the students we serve are students of color. It is important that there is attention being brought to that.”

Valenzuela, from Bronx Community College, urged CUNY to increase diversity in counseling services. “Through research, [we] found out that lack of equal representation discourages students from seeking help,” she said.

City Council members, who shared those concerns, emphasized the need for culturally-competent counselors. But Camire, when asked by Council Member Barron, could not provide a racial and ethnic breakdown of faculty for counseling centers across the CUNY system.

Accessing services for mental health is also challenging at Brooklyn College where Neha Syeda is a student. “Students are often unaware of mental health services and how to access them because of the lack of communication, marketing, and outreach,” Syeda said at the hearing. About a quarter of students are estimated to utilize counseling services, according to CUNY data.

According to a 2016 student experience survey at CUNY, only about 5% of community college students and 9% of senior college students were dissatisfied with student health services. About 43% of the university as a whole were neutral regarding the services, “which indicates that these students may not have sought on-campus student health services,” said Council Member Barron.

Barron pressed Camire on CUNY’s outreach plan for students that may be unaware that counseling programs exist. Camire detailed CUNY’s efforts – advertising resources on screens and boards throughout campuses, through email blasts, on CUNY’s wellness site as well as individual campus sites, student orientations and on social media. But Baron remained skeptical. “It appears that they’re not effective, and it appears that we need to add some other kinds of outreach that can be more effective in letting students know,” she said.

One way CUNY plans to get the word out is through publishing a student-written ‘Guide to Surviving and Thriving at CUNY’ in November. It will highlight CUNY and community resources, “with a focus on providing the emotional support for getting help when it is needed,” according to the CUNY announcement from earlier in the day. “We are committed to expanding and strengthening the mental health services available to our students during this uncertain and isolating time,” Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez said in a statement accompanying the announcement.

At Friday's hearing, panelists mentioned the importance of providing all students, including those enrolled in evening classes, out-of-state and international students with access to available services. With the new $5 million allocation, the university expects campuses will be able to deliver more face-to-face therapy and “expand online services such as health and wellness assessments, referrals and monitoring of patients’ progress. The technological advances will further assist in providing services to CUNY students who live outside the state,” the announcement states.

Towards the end of the hearing, PSC President Bowen spoke about how CUNY needs to demand more funding through Albany. “$5 million is a one-time amount and it’s not going to solve the problem,” she said. “It’s an issue of investment and issue of political priority, does the mental health of CUNY students matter? If it does, it needs to be invested in.”

By Afia Eama, Gotham Gazette

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