Government Relations Update

A May 15 commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the economic downturn will present serious challenges for postsecondary students in terms of paying for school and stress related to "poor job prospects and increased financial burden." The bottom line: Increased demand for mental health services on college campuses across the country.

As our nation's attention continues to focus on the importance of our economic competitiveness in the future, we still fall short in terms of college completion. A recent Associated Press story noted that "just 54 percent of students entering four-year colleges in 1997 had a degree six years later." While it is true that many students drop out because of financial reasons, others drop out over stress or depression often related to financial need, family concerns or academic failure. A real part of the college completion calculus includes mental and behavioral health factors. If addressed, these factors can make the difference between success and failure in college.

Now, the federal government is taking action and investing in college and university counseling centers to help students along the path toward college completion.

Congress first recognized the value in addressing college students' mental and behavioral health needs in 2004 with the creation of the Campus Suicide Prevention program, part of the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act. The program provides outreach and education to prevent suicide and other mental and behavioral health concerns that can lead to school failure.

To date, the Campus Suicide Prevention program has assisted 70 institutions. At Ohio State University, for example, the program funded the creation of an effective multifaceted and culturally responsive suicide prevention system. Other institutions have used the money to raise awareness about suicide and mental and behavioral health risks more broadly.

Research shows just how much mental and behavioral health support can improve student life. The most recent survey of college counseling center directors found that 58 percent of counseling center clients reported that counseling had helped them remain enrolled in their institution, and 61 percent indicated counseling had helped improve their academic performance.

But the Campus Suicide Prevention program has only tackled part of the problem that our nation's counseling centers are facing. APA has continued to advocate for the program to fund direct mental and behavioral health services for students and more mental health training through psychology internship, postdoctorate and residency programs. Such an expansion is essential, says APA, since 95 percent of counseling center directors surveyed reported that they are seeing more students with severe psychological problems. In fact, 64 percent of directors reported they do not have the staff to cope with this heightened caseload during peak times.

Bolstered by information and advocacy from APA and other groups, Congress has again demonstrated great leadership. In March, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) reintroduced the Mental Health on Campus Improvement Act (S. 682) in the Senate, and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) in the House (H.R. 1704). This legislation builds on the Campus Suicide Prevention program by authorizing a greater range of supports to reach college students with mental and behavioral health needs. This legislation complements the Campus Suicide Prevention program and authorizes the changes APA has called for: direct services to students, increased hiring of campus mental health professionals, and expanded psychology internship, postdoctoral and residency programs. And of great importance, the bill establishes a national public education campaign and an Interagency Working Group/Task Force on College Mental Health to raise nationwide awareness of the efficacy and wisdom in addressing college students' mental and behavioral health needs.

As an early and vocal supporter of this legislation, APA has championed the reauthorization of the Campus Suicide Prevention program and the adoption of the Mental Health on Campus Improvement Act. APA's Education Government Relations Office will continue to promote and push for the inclusion of both of these initiatives as part of the overall review of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which is up for renewal during the 111th Congress.

You can get involved and help in this effort. In fact, we need you to lend a voice. Please be on the lookout for e-mail alerts asking you to contact your senators and representative to urge them to co-sponsor the Mental Health on Campus Improvement Act (S. 682 or H.R. 1704) respectively. For more information, contact me via e-mail.

Jennifer Beard Smulson is APA's senior legislative and federal affairs officer for education policy.