When Hollie Cira launched a petition to make UT’s counseling services free for students, she needed 20 signatures to receive credit for her government class. Ten days later, she had over 2,700.
People swarmed to support the petition, which was formed in response to the fact that UT is one of the only major Texas universities to charge students for counseling sessions. Of the top 10 largest public universities in the state, only UT and the University of Houston charge, while others — like Texas A&M University — provide free services included in tuition.
Cira, an English sophomore, said counseling services at big universities like UT should be free because mental health is a major issue facing college students.
“I think about mental health every day,” Cira said. “It’s very present, but it seems like it’s not there because people are people and everybody looks the same … I’m just very happy that my petition has (helped) a community of people to actually be aware.”
When it comes to moving money around to actually make sessions free, Chris Brownson, director of the Counseling and Mental Health Center, said it is not that simple. Brownson said big budget decisions such as this one would be made in collaboration with administration at the center and other departments at the University.
However, Brownson said the center makes an effort to ensure there is no barrier between students and services. Students who cannot afford the $10 fee are able to petition for money from the Student Emergency Fund to pay for their counseling. The center offers free services as well, such as group therapy sessions, workshops and a 24/7 crisis line.
“I think for those students who are able to afford that $10, $10 is a reasonable charge for mental health care,” Brownson said. “You really can’t find a better price than that, especially for the quality that you’re getting in the city of Austin.”
Electrical engineering senior Hannah Peeler said she supports the petition because within her four years at UT, she has known multiple students who have died as a result of suicide or have attempted suicide. She said as a top university, UT holds their students to a higher standard, which causes them to feel increased pressures and can lead to depression.
“For me personally, it starts from the fact that I lost my dad to suicide when I was 13,” Peeler said. “I’m no stranger to the pain that it can cause to people that are close to someone who’s struggling … I feel like for such a large and affluent public institution, UT could do more.”
Marketing sophomore Sammi Collins was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder six years ago, but the fees discouraged her from seeking UT’s counseling services. Collins said she has seen people she is close to struggle with mental health issues since starting college.
Although Collins shared the petition online, she is not optimistic for its future.
“I don’t think that (UT is) going to change anything,” Collins said. “It’s going to take a lot more of something happening for them to change. Because that means they would have to lose money, and that’s not something UT does.”
The counseling center earns about $230,000 from counseling charges each year, Brownson said. Student Government has been meeting with the center to discuss strategies to expand funding and outreach for all students, said Micky Wolf, student body vice president and Plan II and business honors senior. In addition, SG is now reaching out to other Texas institutions to address funding on a state level, including the University of Houston, the only other of Texas’ 10 largest public universities to charge for counseling.
Peeler said she hopes support for this petition will make a lasting change on campus.
“I’ve seen plenty of other things where students show a lot of interest in having something change, and it doesn’t really make a difference,” Peeler said. “I feel like this is something UT should take a serious look at.”