Opinion | UA must expand the reach of the Counseling Center

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Alex Jobin, Staff Columnist

Boston University recently published a survey of 33,000 college students to assess the general mental well-being of college students in the United States. The study found a “treatment gap,” indicating that many students who are struggling with mental health issues do not receive treatment. 

Half of the students surveyed screened positive for depression and/or anxiety. 

As we are in the midst of Mental Health Awareness Week, we must acknowledge that college students are suffering from poor mental health in alarming numbers, and this issue is being inadequately addressed. Indeed, it is only being exacerbated by pandemic fallout, political division and astronomical levels of student debt.

The University of Alabama remains one of only two schools in the Southeastern Conference that charges students for mental health counseling along with Louisiana State University. Following a free screening appointment, students are charged $15 per session at the UA Counseling Center. On top of this cost, students are only allowed up to 15 sessions per semester.

A 2019 survey of 17 schools found that counseling programs at universities comparable to The University of Alabama had a median budget of $2.41 million. That is more than double the 2020 UA Counseling Center budget of $1.06 million. As of October 2020, the University employed 19 counselors responsible for approximately 2,000 students each, creating weekslong wait times for students seeking to better their mental health. 

Between session fees, wait times and general stigma around caring for one’s mental health, UA students contend with many obstacles in seeking mental healthcare. 

Thankfully, there are people working to change this reality. They’re promoting not only awareness, but action.

UA Students for a National Health Program worked with the Student Government Association last semester to develop and pass a resolution to increase funding for the Counseling Center. The resolution calls for “a plan to increase yearly funding of the counseling center to reach the average level of counseling center funding for comparative flagship universities with similar enrollment sizes.” 

Additionally, it calls for further research on eliminating session fees and cites a survey of some 100 students, more than half of whom indicated that those fees act as “a barrier for many students who seek counseling services.”

Vice President of UA SNaHP Hannah Lorenz, a junior majoring in chemical engineering, stressed the importance of expanding the Counseling Center’s accessibility, particularly through eliminating the $15 session fees. 

“For many students, the Counseling Center is their only option for help, as they do not have the support of their parents or guardians, so by placing this financial barrier, it prevents many students from seeking the help they need,” Lorenz said. 

UA SNaHP President Bianca Caton echoed this sentiment and said the session fees could be replaced by a smaller one-time fee at the beginning of each year or semester.

“We sent out a survey to the students as the resolution was being reviewed by the senate and we got a positive response on the idea to do a one-time fee at the beginning of the year,” Caton said. “This is, of course, if the school will not allocate the funds themselves.”

The resolution is now in the hands of UA administration, including UA President Stuart R. Bell. 

It is vital that the University lives up to SNaHP and the student government’s call to action. Failing to do so would illustrate a lack of care for students’ well-being, or at least a terrible ignorance of the increasingly taxing nature of being a full-time student. 

Budget cuts must be made somewhere, but if other colleges can fund counseling, we can too. The University should eliminate the session fees and session caps, increase staffing and funding for the Counseling Center, and generally promote open and honest conversation surrounding mental health on campus.

If this cannot be done in the immediate future, the University can take initial steps to expand the reach of mental health resources on campus. We already have great services here at the University, but we can do more to combat the current mental health epidemic among students. 

Questions? Email the Opinions desk at letters@cw.ua.edu.