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College students need more mental health resources, speakers stress at state hearing

Assemblymember Gunther (right) says "enough is enough" and calls on fellow lawmakers to press GOv. Hochul to fund more mental health supports for college students in New York state. Assemblymember Glick is to her left.
New York Stare Assembly screenshot
Assemblymember Gunther (right) says "enough is enough" and calls on fellow lawmakers to press Gov. Hochul to fund more mental health support for college students in New York state. Assemblymember Glick is to her left.

State lawmakers gathered this week for a public hearing on college students' mental health needs ahead of the upcoming 2023 legislative session.

The average age of onset for serious mental illness is between 18 and 24 years old -- the same age as most college students, said Ann Marie Sullivan, commissioner of the New York State Office of Mental Health.

“We know that with supports, individuals with the most serious mental illness can be successful, live successful lives, complete their schoolwork and get their degree. But they may need extra support,” Sullivan said during the state Assembly hearing at the Legislative Office Building in Albany.

It’s critical to connect people to resources before a crisis to keep a serious mental health condition from interrupting their lives, she said, but stigma has gotten in the way for too long.

Assemblymember Aileen Gunther, the chair of the state Assembly's mental health committee, said taking care of students’ mental health needs is a moral and civil obligation that will require state funding.

“We give boatloads of money to things that don't really have an impact on our true community, and you know what? I'm just a little bit sick of it,” she said. “There are psychiatric patients, there are kids that are quitting school, there are children that are not going to school, because they can't get the help that they need.”

Gunther said right now, there are not enough resources for students, who are often not treated equally as students with other types of disabilities.

Frederick Kowal, union president of United University Professions, pointed out that at the University at Buffalo, there is a ratio of one counselor for every 1,406 students, which he said is similar to other large institutions.

Kowal proposes adding 50 more counselor positions at SUNY campuses across the state and creating a pipeline for people of underrepresented communities to go into the mental health care profession.

Assemblymember Harvey Epstein said nurturing mental wellness would also require addressing contributing factors like food and housing insecurity.

In a white paper published earlier this year, the Mental Health Association of New York State stated that there was no pending legislation in 2020 related to addressing mental health policies on college campuses, and as far back as 2004 there were no college-oriented hearings regarding mental health within the Assembly.

“Surely it seems reasonable for the New York State Legislature and/or the Administration to invite public input and create a forum through which to consider the evidence of the so-called crisis,” the paper states. “MHANYS believes that New York should strive to assure that college is, at least, not a causal contributor to the mental health challenges of its students. And at best, college should provide an atmosphere and experience that nourishes young minds.”

The public hearing on Wednesday was held by Gunther and Assemblymember Deborah Glick.

Noelle E. C. Evans is WXXI's Murrow Award-winning Education reporter/producer.