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Posted Sept. 13, 2010

Bonnie Reports College Mental Health Survey Results

Richard Bonnie

Professor Richard Bonnie testified before state lawmakers last week about the results of a mental health survey of Virginia’s colleges and universities.

About 98 percent of the state’s 64 colleges participated in a survey commissioned by the General Assembly’s Joint Commission on Health Care (JCHC) seeking information on students’ access to mental health services and the ways in which colleges are responding to students’ mental health crises.

Two task forces are reviewing the survey data and will report their conclusions next spring. Bonnie testified to the Behavioral Health Subcommittee of the JCHC on Sept. 7 about some key findings in areas ranging from student access to mental health services to threat assessment.

Bonnie is chairing the College Mental Health Study, and Professor John Monahan was the primary adviser to the JCHC for the survey.

The survey results indicate that counseling centers in private colleges have about 70 percent more staff — and serve about 70 percent more students — than counseling centers in four-year public colleges.

“One of the most important issues being considered in our deliberations concerns the mental health needs of students enrolled in the Commonwealth’s 23 community colleges,” Bonnie testified. “While access to on-campus mental health services may seem less important in non-residential colleges than in residential ones, students attending community colleges often face mental and emotional challenges equivalent to those faced by students in traditional four-year colleges, and may be even less able to cope with them without professional assistance. Nonetheless, Virginia’s community colleges are prevented by official policy from providing mental health services on their campuses.”

The survey results also indicate that an average of 56 students per four-year public college and six students per private college withdrew from school in 2008-09 for mental health reasons. Overall rates of medical withdrawal and psychiatric hospitalization in Virginia’s four-year colleges in 2008-09 were 35 per 10,000 students for public schools and 12 per 10,000 in private institutions.

“During 2008-09, at least 11 Virginia college students committed suicide and at least 86 more attempted suicide,” Bonnie said. “One-third of all public colleges experienced a student suicide, and about three-quarters experienced a student suicide attempt.”

The survey also found that it is now easier for school officials to notify the parents of a student exhibiting troubling behavior. A clarification of federal law and changes to state law since the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech have lessened perceived legal impediments to parental notification, according to the report.

“Public colleges notified a student’s parents because they were concerned about the student’s becoming harmful to him or herself or others a total of 68 times in 2008-09,” Bonnie said. “Private colleges did so 70 times, and community colleges six times.”

Though state lawmakers authorized Virginia’s colleges to require enrolled or admitted students to provide mental health records, only eight of the state’s colleges indicated that they’ve used this authority to solicit information from selected students, the survey found.

“In addition, about half of the four-year colleges administer health surveys to enrolled students that include questions regarding mental health and share the information with the counseling center,” Bonnie said. “The legal issues task force is attempting to ascertain why the authority to seek school records is not being used more often.”

Finally, Bonnie reported that the survey discovered that two-thirds of public four-year colleges have established working agreements with local community service boards (CSBs). About half of private colleges and 70 percent of community colleges have also done so, he said.

“Our study task forces have identified a number of major concerns about the sharing of information between colleges, CSBs and hospitals about students needing or receiving acute mental health services,” Bonnie testified. “For example, most colleges report that they are not notified when a commitment proceeding involving a student is initiated by someone other than the college or when their students are admitted to or discharged from a hospital. The task forces are attempting to identify solutions to allow for improved communication in these situations.”

Bonnie also presented a progress report on state mental health law reform to the Behavioral Health Subcommittee of the Joint Commission on Health Care. He chairs the Commission on Mental Health Law Reform established by the chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court.