Cutting Mental Health Service on Campuses

A recent article in Inside Higher Education addressed this reality: the largest community college in the Pennsylvania State system is cutting mental health services. In this particular community college on a go forward basis, these services are being handled by the community to which students are directed (how they are directed remains a mystery to me). And, when you look at the reasons: budget, budget, budget. I’d add lack of utilization and lack of an outcry. And, a lack of understanding of who are students are and our responsibility to them.

Here’s what is shocking to me: the IHE article not only generated a lack of outrage in the comments section but strong support for the cuts at this community college (and I assume others). To summarize many of the comments (plentiful), here we go: Why is it the job of a community college to provide mental health facilities? Students should not be in school if they need such help or they should go outside the college to get help. And, the role of an educational institution? To provide classrooms and content only. Full stop. Oh, apparently, others have outsourced mental health personnel.

Seriously, that was the sum of the comments and I assume many, if not most, were from educators. And, my comments (and I assume those of others) against the cuts were decried as “liberal” and the argument that actually mental health services saved money and enabled student success were deemed false and not supported by empiricism and consisted mainly of the hogwash of the liberal mind. I have been a long time supporter of teaching the students we have, not the ones we dream up in our imaginations. And, many are lastic and succeed, despite us. (See Breakaway Learners)

I am not making this whole debate up.

Since when is mental health and the need for it only within the province of liberals? I did not see mental health as a political issue unless people equate mental health needs with only the poor and to those attending non-elite institutions. And, the idea that mental health saves money is NOT a liberal idea. Goodness knows: we need to look at the long term economic consequences of the ABSENCE of mental health facilities (caps intended).

It is true that I have an expanded definition of the role of the educator and wide swaths of people within and outside the academy do not share my views. (See my forthcoming book: Educating for Trauma: Strategies for Student Success (Columbia Teachers College Press 2020)). They see educators as those who provide content in classrooms. I think that is too narrow a view. If we want ALL students to succeed, then we need to know our students, understand their needs and facilitate their capacity to become their best selves. That mandates a larger role for educators.

So, all those college and university professors who believe their role in to enter and exit the classroom, pouring out or spewing forth content and then having a few hours for students to visit their offices: I disagree. I see the role of educators across the educational pipeline as vastly broader than that. And, that assumes faculty CAN actually teach; some lack quality pedagogy, regardless of their remarkable content knowledge.

Readers: Did you have any such professors along the way?

But, the point of this essay is not just to suggest that mental health facilities on campuses in today’s world make sense (which they do and which many support), it is also to unravel why we have such antipathy to mental health services and why we assume that the only folk who need them are the poor, including community college students.

Let’s leave aside for the moment that community colleges enroll diverse non-traditional students including returning students who dropped out or stopped out, Veterans, workers whose skills were insufficient in the job marketplace, and individuals who never quite got on the four-year pathway. Don’t get me started on the needs of those who have served our nation and their families — we have been at war for a decade.

Mental health is not a liberal issue and mental well-being (or lack thereof) is not an issue of SES. Many wealthy or moderately wealthy folks, including students in elite colleges, have mental health issues. For real. Wealthy adults have mental health issues. Professional athletes, actors, politicians, financiers, business folk and bankers: they have mental health issues. Mental health (including but not limited to trauma, depression and anxiety — separately or concurrently) is not only a poor person’s problem.

Recently, Yankees’ fans taunted a Houston pitcher, Zack Greinke, because he suffered from anxiety and depression. He should be lauded for his efforts to deal with his issues. Campus suicides, including the suicide of the head of mental health services at the University of Pennsylvania, are not only among the poor and the downtrodden. Gee wiz. Michael Douglas’ son had an addiction and was imprisoned. People with cancer or other diseases struggle with depression. Many talented folks in the arts (and other professions) have bouts of depression; William Styron has written at length about this reality. We even have lists of famous people with depression.

So, we want to deprive PA community college students (17,000 or so of them at the community college where cuts are being made) of on-campus mental wellness facilities? And the reason proffered is money. Surely there are budgetary issues. I get that. But, there are choices as to what to cut. We somehow think this PA community colleges should get rid of these services because they are expensive, the campus is non-residential (non-residential students need mental health access too) and the counselors are underutilized (a totally different issue). But, we want them at elite colleges. And we want them following traumatic events like school shootings.

And we have courts mandate that as a “punishment” for the rich. How many of the wealthy in the college admissions scandal offered to get mental healthcare now to atone? How many argued that childhood adversity made them bribers? How many argued that they now are so upset they and their families need mental health care?

Is the absurdity coming through? Mental health is a national issue affecting ALL individuals and families. It is not a political issue per se although we make it one. It is not a question of it being a poor people’s problem. We need an educated populous for a Democracy to succeed. And, community colleges are a pathway forward to entry into the workforce with skills.

Yet, many folks within and outside the educational arena still think students are a brain on a chair, as opposed to a person in a seat.

People. Students of all ages and at all stages are people. We need to put resources into them if we want them to succeed. We need for them to succeed for the sake of our workforce, our economy, our communities, our collective well being.

So, folks running colleges and college systems: if you have any say, don’t cut mental health facilities as they did in PA. It isn’t wise. It isn’t right. It isn’t justified. It isn’t economic. It makes no sense. And, for the educators out there, times they are a’ changing. And political folk: leave mental health as an issue for all, not just an issue for the liberals. Last time I checked, it is not only liberals who struggle with mental illness. There is no shortage of mental illness among people of all political parties. For sure and for real.

And, where is the outrage for the largest community college in PA? Where are our voices in protest? Silenced by the right? Silenced generally? We can speak up and out to suggest that how we cut budgets reveals our values. And, we value humans.

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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