Education Leadership Conference

APA members at this year's Education Leadership Conference in September urged the nation's lawmakers to support two priorities aimed at improving the health of the nation's college students: the Mental Health on Campus Improvement Act and the Campus Suicide Prevention Program.

The Mental Health on Campus Improvement Act (S.3311) introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) would provide grants college counseling centers could use to provide services addressing a broad range of mental and behavioral health needs.

"A few years ago, many of you came up with a list of needs your students come into centers with and what you would do if you had the money," said Jenny B. Smulson, senior legislative and federal affairs officer in APA's Education Directorate. "Now that list has found its way into federal legislation."

The bill would support prevention, screening, early intervention, treatment, hiring and training.

Smulson urged participants to emphasize the role that mental and behavioral problems play in school failure as they talked to legislators. "This is a small insurance policy," she said of the legislation. "In the most extreme cases, it can make a difference between a student's life or death. Even in less extreme cases, it's whether a student drops out in the third year with an enormous debt they're not going to be able to pay back."

Because the bill was introduced at the end of a congressional session, explained Smulson, it's unlikely to be considered this year.

"Your job is really to lay the groundwork for next year," Smulson told participants, emphasizing the importance of providing examples of students' needs from their own campuses.

As a result of the advocacy effort during the ELC, the Mental Health on Campus Improvement Act gained four additional Senate co-sponsors.

The Campus Suicide Prevention Program is a "small but important" program that offers funding campuses can use to develop educational material on suicide prevention, Smulson said. Since its creation in 2004, the program has awarded 55 grants to educational institutions around the country. "Again, many of the ideas were brought forward to Congress by many of you in this room and other APA colleagues," said Smulson.

The program has been funded at $5 million since it began, which Smulson called "pretty extraordinary for a brand new program."

Noting that the program complements the broader Mental Health on Campus Improvement Act, she urged participants to champion the suicide prevention program without changes.

The Campus Suicide Prevention Program is housed within the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. SAMHSA would also be the home of the Mental Health on Campus Improvement Act if it passes.

SAMHSA itself is up for reauthorization, Smulson explained, noting that the reauthorization process had stalled. The good news, she said, is that advocates now have a chance to explain why it's so important to include both pieces of legislation within SAMHSA's reauthorization when Congress returns to the issue next year.

"It's something we can hit the ground running with," she said.

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.