Candace Layne would love to have a conversation with lawmakers or the governor — or even the governor’s well-known English bulldog — about the strain that college counseling centers are going through.
“I would love for him to sit down with some counseling center directors. Just an hour. He probably has no idea how university mental health centers in his state are overwhelmed with the needs of students. Add in, I want Babydog to come,” said Layne, the director of Marshall University’s counseling center.
“The big part for colleges and universities is retention. We directly impact retention. Many of our students wouldn’t make it to the finish line without the counseling center. I know that’s true on other campuses.”
In 2018, when Layne started at Marshall, 683 students visited the counseling center.
Last year, the entire academic year, 991 students went to the counseling center for help.
This semester alone, with the continued stress of the pandemic, 967 students have come to the counseling center.
“So each year I have been here our numbers have dramatically increased, very, very much so,” Layne said.
The strain on student mental health has been in the spotlight, in part, because of the efforts of West Virginia University student leaders to gain more financial support for counseling efforts.
WVU’s Student Government Association on Sept. 15 passed a resolution in favor of the Mountaineer Resilience Project, requesting that an unspecified amount of federal money that has been passed along to the state be dedicated to student mental health.
Those student leaders have been trying to get the attention of Gov. Jim Justice, whose administration faces a deadline at the end of this month to spend the state’s remaining share of federal CARES Act funds. West Virginia still has $127 million of its CARES money remaining, according to the state Auditor’s transparency website.
The Governor’s Office has described awareness of the request but so far has not announced a determination.
The initiative started at WVU but could benefit college students across the state, said Azeem Khan, a WVU student senator.
“As elected representatives for the Student Body at West Virginia University, we can only speak officially for the student body at our University. But through conversations with students across the state who have reached out in support of our initiative and shared their stories of challenges with their mental health, we believe more than ever that mental health is a challenge on campuses across West Virginia.”
“It is our hope that the Governor will meet with us to gain a better understanding of the severity of this problem and decide to help college students at all of West Virginia’s Higher Education Institutions.”
Student mental health was the subject of discussion Friday during a meeting of the state Higher Education Policy Commission.
Alyssa Parks, student body president at Marshall and a member of the HEPC’s student advisory committee, shared ideas about shoring up help on campuses. One involved mental health peer training for students who could “help in situations where students might not be able to get immediate counseling because the counseling centers are overwhelmed right now on a lot of campuses, and it can take up to four weeks sometimes to get an appointment.”
Her comments drew support from West Virginia’s chancellor of higher education, Sarah Armstrong Tucker.
“Our mental health centers are overwhelmed right now. They’ve got waits that are months long. Students can’t get in, and these students are stepping up and saying ‘We’re going to train ourselves to be the front line responders for our mental health crises on our campuses.'”
The issue is not unique to West Virginia campuses either. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy last week issued a public health advisory that young people are facing “devastating” mental health effects. The warning cited significant increases in self-reports of depression and anxiety.
“Our primary concerns are pretty consistent with national data. It’s anxiety, depression, stress,” Layne said.
The most prominent information on the landing page for Marshall’s counseling center, written in red with an exclamation point logo, is that wait times have increased for individual counseling sessions. Students are told they might have to wait three or four weeks for an individual session.
Layne clarified that walk-in appointments of 30 minutes are available each day for students with an immediate need. But there could be a longer wait for your own regular, full-time counselor.
Marshall has recognized those challenges and has stepped up by hiring three new counselors and one new case manager, Layne said. More investment went toward software systems and equipment. Financial support amounting to $247,000 came from federal funds for pandemic relief.
The university plans on continuing these services, along with their costs, into the future. That will mean identifying institutional funding going forward. The current federal relief grants have defined begin and end dates for expenditures.
“Marshall has already assured us that what we received in the covid funds they’re going to find it, ” Layne said. “We can’t stop there.”
The demand on mental health services has gone up for several reasons, she said. One is the stigma on needing help or counseling. Students are more comfortable recognizing their own need.
Another factor may be the age of students on college campuses. “You may see a lot of mental illness in higher ed because that’s the age a lot of people have their first onset,” Layne said.
Add to that some of the doubts college students might face about being away from home, academic achievement, romantic relationships, uncertainty about employment prospects and, generally, the future. “College is stressful in itself without a pandemic,” Layne said.
The covid-19 pandemic was laid in on top of all that, contributing to isolation, anxiety and concerns about the effects of the virus. Marshall surveyed students who came back this fall and determined that they were just as stressed as when the pandemic was at its height.
“We thought students would feel better but when we first started going back to school it was like, ‘Just kidding; now it’s the delta variant,'” Layne said. “I think the uncertainty of it still lingers in a lot of people.”
When MetroNews reached out to Layne to discuss these issues, she specified that she would jump at the opportunity to discuss them with lawmakers or the governor.
“I don’t think they even understand or know how much counseling centers in higher ed do,” she said.