A law passed last year aimed at boosting mental health services and awareness at Illinois’ public universities and community colleges still hasn’t received any of the funding schools say they need to bring the law to life.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, mental health advocates say the money is crucial to helping colleges address gaps in services at a time when counseling and resources have quickly shifted online and students are facing increased isolation, stress and anxiety.
Schools estimate it would take $17 to $20 million each year over the next three years to fully implement the law across all colleges and universities.
“College campus providers are doing their best, but … they’re seeing an increase in demand as they’re having to navigate the transition from in-person services to online and telehealth,” said Caitlin Briody, midwest partnerships coordinator for the nonprofit Young Invincibles. “There are a lot of challenges they’re facing that this bill would’ve supported them with.”
A survey conducted by the state found many public universities and community colleges especially lacked strong online services prior to the pandemic. A vast majority did not have any counselors available via telehealth, meaning in-person counselors were forced to quickly shift online without extensive training. About half the public universities and 80% of community colleges do not have a robust online screening tool that can assess students and directly connect them with mental health services.
“We were looking to that shift taking place, with more telehealth options,” said Joe Hermes, who runs the counseling center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “The pandemic just pushed us to that very quickly, and we’re still scrambling.”
According to the state survey, UIC is the only public university that had some telehealth capability before the pandemic. Even then, telehealth counseling was extremely limited, accounting for less than one staff member’s total counseling availability.
The new demands come as colleges and universities nationally were already struggling to meet an increased need for services among college students before COVID-19, with many schools reporting an increase in students with anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts. An April survey of 2,086 college students by the group Active Minds found 80% of respondents said their mental health was negatively impacted by the novel coronavirus.
The Illinois law
The Mental Health Early Action on Campus Act is a broad mix of 11 requirements and goals to infuse mental health services throughout campuses and make sure staff outside the counseling center are trained to identify and respond to a student mental health concern.
“We know that student wellness lives outside of those four walls [of the counseling center], said Jennifer McGowan-Tomke, associate director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Chicago, which also supported the law. “It’s in the classroom. It’s in their orientations. It’s how they engage with other students on campus. This act was meant to broaden that perspective.”
If funded, the law requires campuses to boost awareness of mental health resources during freshmen orientation, on their website and during high stress points of the semester. Colleges must create an online screening tool and build peer-to-peer support networks where students help others with mental health needs. It also sets the goal that every school has a counselor ratio of 1,250-to-1. According to the Illinois survey conducted by the state, four of 13 public universities and eight of 40 community colleges currently meet that goal.
The state survey also found few colleges and universities were meeting all 11 goals, though some counseling center leaders argue the survey questions were limited in scope and didn’t allow schools to account for all the services they provide.
The $17 to $20 million annual estimate for the cost to implement the law is based on school responses, though the state commission that did the survey said overall estimates vary widely by school and could change depending on how the act is implemented.
State Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch, D-Hillside, who sponsored the bill, said he was disappointed funding was not included in this year’s budget. He said the funding is more important as the pandemic further reveals how schools need to boost services, especially online. He blamed Gov. JB Pritzker for not finding the funding.
“His job as the CEO of the state [is] to make difficult decisions and prioritize what’s important,” Welch said. “He knows the importance of mental health. He admits that over and over again. We have to continue to make our case and hope he sees it as one that needs to be funded immediately.”
Pritzker supported and signed the bill last year. When asked why it didn’t receive funding, spokesperson Jordan Abudayyeh said the budget “was put together by budgeteer lawmakers and signed by the governor,” and asked if WBEZ reached out to lawmakers. She did not respond to subsequent requests for comment or answer why the governor signed a budget that did not reflect his priorities.
Welch said he plans to push the Illinois General Assembly to find money to implement the act during the upcoming fall veto session as part of a supplemental appropriations bill.
“A totally unprecedented year”
Another issue counseling centers have struggled with is how to help students from out of state who returned home and are no longer able to receive clinical services from counselors who were not licensed to practice outside Illinois. Hermes said they’ve spent a lot of time helping students find services locally. They’ve also beefed up nonclinical workshops and online support groups that all students can use as needed. Hermes said a particularly popular session is how to manage your mood during a pandemic.
Carla McCowan runs the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign counseling center and said they’ve also beefed up virtual outreach and prevention programming that students can access on their own time.
“Sometimes they are one-shot or two-session series,” she said, instead of individual counseling sessions. “We have so many increased resources virtually … that’s definitely a shift.”
While staff at multiple college counseling centers said they saw requests for service decline last spring as the semester abruptly shifted online, McCowan said UIUC’s counseling center was busier than ever this summer with requests for individual clinical services. She expects requests to continue as students return to campus this fall.
But as students adjust to another semester of remote learning, advocates say it’s critical that schools not just load their websites with materials, but make sure students know where to look when they’re feeling stressed, isolated or anxious. While schools harp on physical safety and the well being of students as they return to campus, advocates say emotional safety needs to be a part of the conversation going forward.
“It certainly goes hand in hand,” said McGowan-Tomke. “There’s a real need to provide enough support for students who are in a totally unprecedented year.”