Public Policy Update

An idea from the APA Education Directorate's Public Policy Office that was refined in consultation with APA members is now poised to become law. The Campus Care and Counseling Act (H.R. 3593/S. 2215), introduced earlier this year by a bipartisan coalition in both houses of the U.S. Congress, authorizes a federal program that will provide competitive grants to increase and enhance the mental and behavioral health services provided on college campuses.

The legislation was recently combined with the Youth Suicide Prevention bill and renamed the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act (S. 2634), in honor of Sen. Gordon Smith's (R-Ore.) son, who committed suicide last year. On Sept. 9, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate passed the bill; it is pending signature by President Bush.

This federal recognition of the importance of improving mental and behavioral health services on college campuses comes at a time when college counseling centers are reporting unprecedented numbers of students seeking their services.

What will this legislation mean to campus-based centers that provide mental and behavioral health services to students?

"In this difficult time of budget reductions, the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act [will] be a new possible revenue source to continue to provide an effective level of counseling and consultation services to students," says Emil Rodolfa, PhD, director of the counseling center at the University of California, Davis.

Rodolfa was one of several APA members at counseling centers who lent their expertise to the congressional staff who drafted the bill. In fact, APA's Board of Educational Affairs has awarded Rodolfa and Harvette Grey, PhD, executive director of the DePaul University Cultural Center, with its 2004 Education Advocacy Distinguished Services Awards for their work on the bill (see "Campus counseling act advocate honored").

Students in need

People often assume that college is a fun, carefree time and that it is low-stress, but that is usually not the case, says University of Rhode Island psychologist Jim Campbell, PhD, another bill supporter. In a lot of ways, college is a high-risk environment, he notes.

"To have a federal program that acknowledges this is a great thing," he says. "People want college students to be safe and successful. That is what college counseling centers want too. We now know that there are ears that will listen to us and that will continue to listen....This is stirring the pot in a useful way."

That "stirring" should help campus centers meet the growing and diverse mental and behavioral health needs of students, he and other observers note. For example, centers work on familiar college student problems such as difficulties in relationships, developmental issues, academic pressure, social pressure and living up to their own or their parents' expectations. But they also treat more severe problems such as depression, thoughts of suicide, stress, anxiety, sexual assault and personality disorders.

"We have been seeing staggering numbers of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation intent. This increase in needs has become taxing," says Sherry Benton, PhD, assistant director of counseling services at Kansas State University and a researcher of trends in college counseling center clients. "Years ago, we dealt mainly with developmental issues in campus mental health services; now the problems have become more serious."

Rodolfa also points out that some students turn to drugs and alcohol in an attempt to self-medicate.

"Unfortunately, the statistics regarding alcohol and drug use on campus indicate that students are not successful, and their drug and alcohol use causes more problems than it attempts to solve," he says.

Seizing the opportunity

Recognizing that the mental and behavioral health needs of college students are too great to ignore is the easy part, according to APA's public policy staff. Finding ways to be of help is where things get difficult, they say. Luckily, they note, psychologists have been studying diverse treatment methods and approaches. Many of these psychologists have years of experience working with students and have seen firsthand what is most effective and what is still necessary to further address students' needs.

Both Benton and Campbell indicate that focusing more on prevention would be valuable. Another possible use of the program's funds is student outreach, says Campbell: "I have found that in most cases we are able to be helpful to the people who come to our counseling center. However, lots of students resist coming," he explains. "Therefore, I would love to have one or two counselors focused solely on outreach."

In addition, Benton emphasizes the need for more research, especially concerning best practices that work in college settings and target college students. She explains that college students' issues are often different from other populations' and need to be dealt with in a manner that best suits the college environment, such as brief interventions that work within the semester schedule.

The funds could also increase counseling centers' ability to counsel students about college stressors and help students gain a sense of their own self-efficacy.

"Teaching students to enhance their coping skills, helping them learn how to take better care of their health and well-being are services that need to be enhanced," Rodolfa says.

Worth the work

Benton, Campbell and Rodolfa all used their experience working in college settings to help congressional staff draft the Campus Care and Counseling Act. Once the bill was introduced, they contacted their legislators, urging them to support the legislation.

"I felt privileged to be able to participate in this process," Campbell says. "What struck me was how easy it all was. Members of Congress and their staff were eager for input, I was able to write them e-mails, and they were happy to hear from a psychologist who could relate to this issue."

Rodolfa also emphasizes the importance of being involved in the advocacy process: "All our children are valuable. We the people, through the U.S. Congress, should take steps to help our children manage the transition into, during and out of college. Passing the Campus Care and Counseling Act is a first step in the right direction."

Catharina Ablasser is an intern in APA's Public Policy Office.