CMHC price hike burdens at-risk students

Greg Hansch and Karen Ramus

With suicide being the second leading cause of death among college students, we applaud the University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center (CMHC) for raising awareness on campus about this important issue during Suicide Prevention Week. Students need to know where to turn to when they are in distress, seeking treatment or simply need someone to listen.

All that said, the recent service fee increases at the CMHC seem to be at cross-purposes with the commitment to ensuring that students have affordable access to mental health services when they are in crisis or need ongoing support.  While the increase is relatively minor, creating any financial obstacles to mental health treatment places struggling students at risk and undermines the University’s efforts to address mental illness and prevent suicide in its student population.

According to a 2014 nationwide survey of university and college counseling center directors, virtually all schools with a mental health center offer individual counseling services.  Alarmingly, less than half offer psychiatry services. Fortunately, the CMHC offers both but sits in the minority in charging for these services. Only 30 percent of schools with on-campus psychiatry charge for sessions and only 8 percent have fees for individual counseling. The CMHC not only charges for those services — effective this semester, it has doubled the fee that it charges for individual counseling sessions and tripled the fee for psychiatry sessions.

It is no secret that mental illness is a serious issue on college campuses. Untreated depression is the most frequent cause for suicides in college-age adults.  A young person dies by suicide approximately every two minutes in this country and rates of anxiety and depression among college students have drastically increased in recent years.

That being said, there is hope: college students are increasingly seeking help and are more aware of services available. Raising the fee for these critical mental health services has the potential to impact the numbers of students accessing services and increasing the numbers of suicides on campus. Students and their families choose UT because they expect a top-notch experience in which on-campus services address the full spectrum of support students need to excel, including mental health.

The change at CMHC comes at a time when the Texas Legislature has taken steps to bolster campus mental health support. As reported by the Daily Texan, a new law requires students starting at UT and other four-year public universities in Fall 2016 or later to be provided with information about the available mental health and suicide prevention services, the early warning signs of suicide, and how to appropriately intervene in a crisis. There is also new legislation requiring Texas public universities to post information about mental health resources available to students.

The Texas and Austin affiliates of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) affiliates are located just a few miles north of UT at the Austin State Hospital campus, and we are actively engaged in working with UT students who serve as volunteers and access our free education, support and advocacy programming. We stand in support with them and encourage UT to reconsider its budget priorities which put the mental health and well-being of its students at risk.

Greg Hansch is the public policy director of NAMI Texas. Karen Ranus is the executive director of NAMI Austin.