Virginia's Community Colleges Should Bolster Mental Health Services, Study Chaired by UVA Law Professor Concludes

November 23, 2011

Virginia should close a gap in mental health services for students enrolled in community colleges, members of a state study told the General Assembly on Tuesday. University of Virginia School of Law professor Richard Bonnie, who is chair of the Virginia College Mental Health Study, reported the study's recommendations to the assembly's Joint Commission on Health Care.

Richard Bonnie
Richard Bonnie

The joint commission launched the study in September 2009 in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, as well as the resulting package of reform legislation the General Assembly enacted in 2008.

"The central aim of the College Mental Health Study is to take stock, four years later, of access to mental health services by college students and the effectiveness of the legal framework for preventing and responding to mental health crises that was created by the 2008 legislation," Bonnie said in his testimony.

Virginia's four-year colleges have counseling centers that are providing essential services that should not be cut back, Bonnie said. But the state's community colleges have invested little in mental health services.

"Our task forces were deeply concerned that many students enrolled in community colleges may lack access to affordable mental health services even when they are feeling severely distressed," Bonnie told the commission. "We suspect that many community college students are uninsured or underinsured and cannot access services in the private sector."

Jared Loughner, the man indicted for the January 2011 shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others, was a community college student in Arizona. State and college officials faced scrutiny in the wake of the shooting for how they handled the case of Loughner, who was kicked out of Pima Community College for his disruptive behavior shortly before the shooting.

"We don't actually know how many community colleges have counseling centers," Bonnie said. "That is perhaps a sign of the problem. The only survey we found indicates that between half and three-fourths of the community colleges lack any mental health services.

"The immediate priority, though, is to make sure that there is at least one clinically trained professional available on campus for screening, referral and crisis response."

Other study recommendations include:

  • establishing brief screening and referral services for students in need of mental health intervention at community colleges, as well as threat assessment teams to evaluate those at risk;
  • ensuring that all colleges have planning groups to establish and evaluate mental health awareness and prevent suicide;
  • and clarifying and strengthening information-sharing between colleges and community service boards to ensure that schools know when students have received mental health services outside of the college referral system.

University of Virginia law professor John Monahan also served as a member of the study's steering committee and survey team, along with Susan M. Davis, the associate vice president for student affairs and a liaison to the general counsel at the University of Virginia.


Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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