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Miami looks to boost mental health services with new fee

Jayne Brownell remembers a time when Miami University students who reached out to the Student Counseling Service could schedule an intake appointment within one to two business days.

Last semester, though, the Vice President for Student Life saw wait times balloon to seven to 10 days for an initial appointment.

“When we came back last year, we saw more demand than we ever had before,” Brownell said. “But it wasn’t just numbers. It was also people wanting more sessions than they had before. [We saw students with] more complexity of issues that they were bringing than before.”

Since the start of the pandemic, concerns over student depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts have increased across all ages. At Miami, social isolation and the pandemic lifestyle have manifested in a higher volume of students seeking out mental health services and academic accommodations.

Following a new $50 per semester mental health fee for students passed by the Board of Trustees at its December meeting, though, Miami’s mental health resources could get a boost as early as next fall if the Ohio Chancellor of Education approves it.

The fee, which would not impact current students under Miami’s Tuition Promise, would amount to $425,000 per year per class of students to invest in additional resources within the Student Counseling Service and the Miller Center for Student Disability Services.

To help lower wait times and alleviate stress on current employees, Brownell said a majority of funding would go toward hiring new personnel. The Student Counseling Service currently has a student-to-staff ratio of 1,400 to one, while the Miller Center provides service to 570 students per staff member, nearly four times higher than the recommended ratio of 150 to one.

“The vast majority is people,” Brownell said. “Everything we do in student affairs is staff-heavy. You just need the people to do it.”

Liz Browning, a junior English and professional writing double major, reached out to counseling services for the first time last spring. After her initial consultation, which she says took a couple weeks to schedule, she waited a month for her first appointment.

“For me, it wasn't a life or death situation, and I was still able to live as close to normal life as possible without that assistance and help,” Browning said. “But I do remember thinking, ‘I'm sure there's other people with more severe mental illnesses that might need immediate help.’”

While Browning had a positive experience and continued to book appointments last semester, she said the university doesn’t advertise its mental health resources as well as it could. Between her first consultation and her first appointment, for example, she went to group therapy sessions, an option she said not many students know about.

“Some people are not aware of the specifics of just what therapy is,” Browning said. “I'd say that it's kind of 50/50 on that. People know a decent amount [about Student Counseling Services], but not as much as they probably should in order to take advantage of that resource.”

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John Ward, director of the Student Counseling Service, said clinicians prioritize high-risk patients so those who need immediate help don’t have to wait weeks to get it.

Still, increasing demand for sessions forced him and his team to restructure their services midway through the fall semester. Clinicians dedicated more time slots to initial consultations than follow-up sessions to meet the large number of students seeking help.

With the proposed fee, his team wouldn’t have to compromise.

“I am excited beyond the Student Counseling Service … that we’re thinking more comprehensively about mental health care for our students,” Ward said. “What that fee really creates is an opportunity for multiple offices to address mental health care.”

In the first year, Brownell said the new fee could help fund two additional counselors, a disability accommodations coordinator, a health educator, a health education coordinator and a care manager to help connect students to outside resources for long-term or complex care. 

As more students paid the fee, the care manager position would split into two separate care managers, one in the Dean of Students office and one in the Student Counseling Service.

“There’s the crisis itself, and then it could be weeks and months of follow-up after the crisis,” Brownell said. “The end of crisis doesn’t mean that the student is good to go and fine and having no more problems. They’re through that moment and still need support.”

Students can schedule an in-person initial consultation with the Student Counseling Service by calling 513-529-4634 from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Counselors also offer teletherapy options for students who prefer to meet virtually or are sick with COVID-19 or other illnesses. Students can also apply for academic accommodations through the Miller Center online.