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Why mental health cuts on college campuses matter

The Investigator
Your exclusive guide to the best journalism in Pa.
November 7, 2019 | spotlightpa.org
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We're not letting up on our scrutiny of Pennsylvania's largest community college and its decision to end campus mental health counseling. Plus, how "smelling marijuana" could be abused by police to search vehicles. And see where voting machine malfunctions are causing a stir.


"Marijuana seems like an easy way to get [access] to a car. There’s no way to prove ... that they didn’t smell it. It becomes a crutch to justify anything."

— Assistant public defender Michael Mellon on police in Philadelphia increasingly using "smelling marijuana" as justification for searching vehicles

Why we’re focused on college mental health and why it matters to everyone in Pennsylvania

By Aneri Pattani

Spotlight PA recently reported that the state’s largest community college system ended campus mental health services for 17,000 students. HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, made the change without any public announcement to students. We first learned about it through a tip.

Here’s why we’re continuing to follow the story:

Refresh my memory: What’s happening at HACC?

HACC, which has five campuses across Central Pennsylvania, told counselors in September to stop providing mental health counseling to students. Instead, students are to be sent to deans of student affairs, who will then refer them to an off-campus provider. College health experts called the move risky given the rising demand for campus mental health services. Also, on-campus programs are typically free, while off-campus help can be expensive for those who don't have good insurance or any insurance at all.

Why does it matter if HACC offers mental health services?

Over the past decade, there’s been a persistent rise in the number of college students nationwide 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.

There’s an economic argument for schools to provide mental health services, too, as students with unaddressed mental illness are twice as likely to drop out. Researchers have found that by keeping students in school and paying tuition, colleges can more than recoup the cost of mental health services.

How does HACC’s decision compare to what other colleges are doing?

Many colleges across the country are trying to increase their mental health services for students. Just last month, Stanford University agreed to rewrite its involuntary leave of absence policy after students filed a class action lawsuit claiming the college was forcing students with mental illness off campus. Closer to home, the University of Pennsylvania has hired a chief wellness officer and several counselors in response to 14 student suicides since 2013.

What other issues around college mental health are you investigating?

In addition to being a Spotlight PA reporter, I’m currently a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow. I’m using this one-year program and the support of the Carter Center to examine mental health leaves of absence at colleges across Pennsylvania. How easy is it for students to take voluntary leaves of absence for mental health reasons? How often are students with mental illness forced to take involuntary leaves of absence? What is the process for returning to campus? If you’re a college student, professor, parent or anyone with experience in this area, I would love to hear from you.

Aneri can be reached at apattani@spotlightpa.org.

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