HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s largest community college system has eliminated all on-campus mental health counseling for its students, Spotlight PA has learned, a move college health experts called short-sighted and risky at a time of growing need.
The Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) told counselors across its five campuses to stop individual and group counseling as of mid-September, according to an internal memo obtained by Spotlight PA. Instead, students with mental health needs will be sent to a dean of student affairs who will refer them to an off-campus provider.
Counselors were verbally notified of the decision on Sept. 11, and the memo was sent to counselors and administrators on Sept. 25. The changes have not been publicly announced, and the college has yet to notify the entire student body.
Like other institutions across the U.S., the community college — with campuses in Harrisburg, York, Lancaster, Lebanon and Gettysburg — has been grappling with falling enrollment and a growing budget deficit, which currently stands at $2.7 million. In 2014, the system served about 20,000 students. This year, that number is 17,400.
At the same time, state funding for community colleges has been nearly stagnant, with annual budget increases of 2% or less.
The president of HACC, John Sygielski, said the elimination of mental health counseling on campus is part of a larger reorganization to streamline services across the college system. Counselors will continue to assist students with issues other than mental health, such as academic goal setting, career exploration, college and life balance, and connections to community resources for food, shelter and transportation.
“There has been an increase in demand for virtual services and flexible services outside of regular office hours,” Sygielski said in a statement. “With the reorganization, external counseling services will augment the college’s services by providing extended hours and, in some cases, offer 24/7 service.”
College mental health experts said eliminating on-campus counseling is risky given the persistent rise in the number of students experiencing depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for that age group, and the demand for campus counseling services has nearly doubled over the past decade.
“We’re in a period of time when a lot of colleges and universities either are increasing their mental health services or need to be,” said Marissa Meyers, who researches policies to support college students at the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice in Philadelphia. “What if a student who is depressed and seeks mental health services on campus doesn’t follow up with a local provider and attempts suicide?”
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In June 2018, Florida Polytechnic University, a small public college outside of Tampa, laid off its only mental health counselor. When a student died by suicide on campus about a month later, many criticized the college for its decision.
Seven years earlier, Pima Community College in Arizona came under fire for not addressing the mental health concerns of Jared Lee Loughner. Three months after being suspended, he shot 19 people, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
A 2016 study found that about 50% of community college students reported a mental health condition, a greater proportion than students at four-year colleges. In the past year at HACC, 427 students sought on-campus counseling for services other than academic advising, the community college said in its statement. Counselors classified 87 of those as mental health concerns.
Referring students off campus adds another barrier to getting help, and many don’t follow through, said Laura Horne, chief program officer for Active Minds, a national nonprofit focused on college mental health. Students might not have the time or transportation, or they might lack insurance or the means to pay for therapy.
By comparison, college counseling services are typically low or no cost.
“It’s so short-sighted to cut services,” Horne said. “If students don’t get the help they need, they’ll be less likely to stay with the college or graduate.”
Sygielski said the college is in discussions with a third party to provide clinical services at low or no cost, including virtual counseling options.
Finding available counselors could be hard in some communities, said Meyers, of the Hope Center, and wait times for appointments can be weeks or months. According to the Department of Health, several areas of the state — including the city of York, where one of HACC’s campuses is located — have a shortage of mental health care providers.
And although cutting counseling services may save money upfront, it will be more costly in the long run, said Annelle Primm, a licensed psychiatrist and senior medical director of The Steve Fund, a nonprofit focused on mental health for college students of color.
“Students will suffer in silence and their mental health concerns could worsen to a crisis point,” Primm said, making it more likely they’ll drop out, be hospitalized or end up in the correctional system.
A 2019 report prepared by The Healthy Minds Network found students with mental health problems are twice as likely to leave school. By keeping them in school and paying tuition, colleges can more than recoup the cost of mental health services, the authors wrote.
Still, as community colleges struggle to balance budgets and keep tuition low, pooling resources with community providers can be a good option, said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges.
“The college can focus on its educational mission and let professional mental health providers deliver that service,” she said.
Three of Pennsylvania’s other public community college systems also refer students off campus for mental health counseling. Two of them are significantly smaller than HACC, but the Community College of Allegheny County is comparable, serving more than 15,000 students across four campuses.
The remaining 10 public community colleges offer on-campus mental health services, with the number of full-time counselors ranging from one at Pennsylvania Highlands Community College to 20 at the Community College of Philadelphia.
Nationally, 82% of community colleges provide counseling on campus, according to a 2015 survey.
An alternative to eliminating on-campus counseling altogether is to contract with an outside agency to provide a counselor who practices on campus, said Horne, of Active Minds. That person is not on the college’s payroll, but they’re still easily accessible to students and understand the college’s unique needs.
Other options include shortening counseling center hours or introducing a fee for services, said Ethan Fields, who works with the nonprofit JED Foundation to help colleges implement mental health services.
If schools do move to a referral-only system, it’s important they communicate that information clearly and repeatedly to everyone on campus, he said.
“If no one knows where to get the help,” he said, “that’s where it’s really risky.”
If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text TALK to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.