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Regents approve plan to improve mental health services on Utah college campuses

FILE - Robyn Burningham looks at the SafeUT app at her home in West Jordan on Thursday, June 9, 2016. The use of technology such as the SafeUT smartphone app was among the recommendations discussed at the Utah State Board of Regents meeting Friday to deve
FILE - Robyn Burningham looks at the SafeUT app at her home in West Jordan on Thursday, June 9, 2016. The use of technology such as the SafeUT smartphone app was among the recommendations discussed at the Utah State Board of Regents meeting Friday to develop a plan to better address the mental health needs of students who attend Utah's public colleges and universities.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

OGDEN — The Utah State Board of Regents on Friday adopted recommendations of a working group formed to address the mental health needs of students at the state's public colleges and universities.

The recommendations envision increased access to mental health services through community partnerships, the use of technology such as the SafeUT smartphone app and expanding the capacity of graduate programs to increase the number and diversity of mental health professionals in the state.

Working to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness is a fundamental concern, said Regent Patricia Jones, who co-chaired the working group.

"We did find that stigma is a huge barrier to obtaining mental health services among our students but, of course, to other people as well," she said during the regents meeting at Weber State University.

The recommendations include expansion of the SafeUT mobile app for college-age users, including personalizing the app for each institution and identifying a point of contact at each college or university.

The free app provides youths confidential and anonymous two-way communication with crisis counselors at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute or K-12 school staff via one-touch options to “Call Crisisline,” “Chat Crisisline,” or “Submit a Tip.”

The recommendations also call for assessing the mental health and wellness needs of students of the state's eight public colleges and universities and require each institution to develop five-year implementation plans to better meet students mental health needs.

The recommendations require each college and university to train staff on mental health "that complements current sexual assault/harassment training."

Utah Valley University President Matthew Holland said UVU is passionate about the issue and supporting students, but the increasing demands for staff and faculty training require "more and more resources and more and more time that's not directly related to our mission yet becomes more essential to our mission."

Holland prefaced his comments noting that his remarks were not in opposition to the working group's recommendations but to acknowledge that effective, campuswide training "isn't just something we can magically do."

The working group also recommended examining the increased use of health insurance compensation to expand mental health therapy services for students.

A complicating factor is that some students who are on their parents' insurance plans hesitate to seek treatment because they are resistant "to letting their parents know they have mental health issues. These types of issues need to be ironed out," Jones said.

The genesis of the working group was the Utah State University Student Association in September 2016 declaring a "mental health crisis" on its campus.

USU students were waiting four to six weeks to see counselors at the campus-run Counseling and Psychological Services due to a limited number of counselors and inadequate funding for services.

The student government resolution was passed with the intent of encouraging student governments at other public colleges in Utah to pass similar legislation and work together to convince state lawmakers to boost funding for college suicide prevention and mental health programs, Matthew Clewett, USU's student advocate vice president, said at the time.

Ultimately, the student regent brought the issue to the full board, resulting in the creation of the working group.

The Board of Regents working group conducted five meetings from February through August. The group included regents, college administrators, mental health professionals and college students.

USU President Noelle Cockett said she was proud of USU students bringing the issue to the forefront and how quickly the Utah System of Higher Education responded.

Utah State students have agreed to pay higher student fees to hire additional counselors on campus, and the institution has committed part of its Tier II tuition for mental health services, she said.

In Utah, public colleges and universities are permitted to impose second-tier tuition — above uniform first-tier tuition rate increases assessed by all institutions — to meet specific institutional needs.

Friday, as the regents considered issues, programs and building needs that will be part of its 2018 legislative request, administrators noted that some institutions are requesting additional funding for mental health services and initiatives.

Cockett said student fees earmarked for mental health services have been used to hire additional counselors at Counseling and Psychological Services and the tuition will be used to enhance intake services at the student Health and Wellness Center.