A Response to Growing Mental Health and Wellness Needs Among Today’s College Students

Testimony of Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Frank D. Sanchez, The City University of New York

Hearing with the New York City Council on Higher Education Committee and Council on Mental Health


“Are Colleges Offering Adequate Mental Health Services to Students?”

October 31, 2013


Good afternoon Chairpersons Rodriguez and Koppel as well as members of the Higher Education and Mental Health Committees. I am Frank Sanchez, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at the City University ofNew York (CUNY).

Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you about how CUNY is responding to the growing national trend of mental health needs among today’s college students. Members of this afternoon’s panel would like to share specific services, strategies and programs CUNY is using to support students who have mental health needs. I am joined by the Vice President for Student Affairs at Lehman College, Jose Magdaleno, Bertha Fountain, Social Work Field Instructor with our PROVE initiative and Mariette Kalinowski, a student who has directly benefitted from the PROVE program.

National trend data show there are increasing numbers of students seeking help for more severe mental health problems on college campuses nationwide. In fact, the 2010 National Survey of Counseling Center Directors (NSCCD) found that 44 percent of counseling center clients had severe psychological problems, a sharp increase from 16 percent in 2000.

Nationwide, more than 3,700 students were hospitalized for suicide threats and other severe mental health issues in 2010 (NSCCD), a 79 percent increase in just four years. (2,069 students were hospitalized nationwide in 2006.) We also know approximately 25% of students seen in counseling centers nationally come to the counseling center already taking psychiatric medications (NSCCD).

CUNY, like many other universities across the country, has taken specific steps to meet this growing trend of concern. Clearly, these trends have important implications for campus administrators and counseling centers. Currently, CUNY has 19 counseling centers that provide services for approximately 270,000 enrolled students. These mental health services vary by campus. They include: intake evaluation, individual and group counseling; walk-in/emergency evaluation and care; crisis intervention and management; referrals for medication evaluation and treatment; and referrals to off-campus resources for specialized treatment modalities.

All centers provide educational outreach and prevention services. Services in this area that vary by campus include: mental health screening and awareness days; workshops on test anxiety, study skills and time management; parenting workshops for student parents; stress management and healthy lifestyle programming; relaxation and mindfulness programming; outreach to academically struggling students and skills training in freshmen orientation seminars. One example of CUNY’s innovative outreach programming is “Don’t Cancel That Class,” an effort where counselors step in for faculty who call in sick and present to the class an  overview of mental health and support services on campus.

Addressing the problem of alcohol abuse can also support students struggling with heightened stress and anxiety. Our campuses offer a range of alcohol and drug educational outreach and programming. These include tabling and pamphlet distribution events to raise campus awareness and provide psychoeducation materials and resources; alcohol and substance use screenings; professional development of staff through expert trainings on alcohol and drug treatments and preventions; and conducting workshops and groups such as SmartRecovery that help students overcome addictive behaviors.

In response to campus emergencies involving students with mental health challenges, all CUNY campuses have established behavioral intervention teams or BIT Teams. The campus BIT teams typically meet weekly or bi-weekly to discuss the best support for distressed students. The teams include staff from the campus counseling center, the Dean of Students, campus security, disability services, judicial affairs and residence life staff. Our staff attend nationally recognized-professional development trainings on BIT team best practices. BIT teams have clearly established and defined policies and procedures to identify and monitor students of concern. When necessary, CUNY BIT teams provide timely intervention, treatment, referrals and follow-up for students in distress.

A survey of the landscape in regard to mental health issues and challenges, reveals that there is much more we will need to do to more adequately position ourselves in the future to meet the needs of CUNY’s student population. We are anticipating a growing number of students with increasingly complex problems in need of counseling and psychiatric support as well as increased access to both counseling and psychiatric services including medication evaluation and medication management. Affordable, off-campus care resources will be required for those students with psychological and psychiatric conditions too complex and chronic for a college counseling center. Finally, there is a need for increased educational outreach and prevention programming specifically designed to reduce stigma in those groups and cultures where mental health issues are considered shameful or a character defect.

In closing, the City University of New York and members of our college leadership are committed to the mental health and wellness of our students. Toward that end, we have been proactive, planning and taking steps to address and bring awareness to a wide scope of mental health issues while ensuring the maintenance of healthy campus communities. I want to thank the committee for your timely and well-placed focus on this important topic.For a more local, college perspective on this topic of mental health support I will now introduce Jose Magdaleno, Vice President of Student Affairs at Lehman College to provide insight to the day to day operations of our counseling centers.