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University presidents, regents question Utah results of mental health survey

Some Utah university presidents as well as members of Utah State Board of Regents called into question Friday the validity of results of mental health survey questions that were part of a nationally recognized general health survey administered on all state campuses last spring.
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LOGAN — Some Utah university presidents as well as members of Utah State Board of Regents called into question Friday the validity of results of mental health survey questions that were part of a nationally recognized general health survey administered on all state campuses last spring.

The 2019 National College Health Assessment indicated nearly 15% of 5,202 students surveyed — representing 3.13% of the Utah system’s spring enrollment — seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months. Nationally, 8.6% of students seriously considered suicide, according to the American College Health Association’s assessment results.

The results also showed that 1.9% of Utah students surveyed attempted to take their lives, compared to 1.4% nationally.

Southern Utah University President Scott Wyatt said the results also indicated that 1 in 4 SUU students intentionally injured themselves.

“I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think that’s even close to right,” he said.

The Utah results presented to the board said 9.3% of those surveyed reported they intentionally cut, burned or otherwise injured themselves in the past year.

“The only thing worse than no data is bad data. I think this is bad data,” Wyatt said during the board of regents meeting on Utah State University’s Logan campus.

The assessment was administered during the spring semester to help inform a regents initiative on mental health.

The plan called for needs assessments, improved access to mental health services and the development of five-year plans by each college and university in the state system to better meet students’ mental health needs.

While some institutions in the system have participated in the survey in the past, this was the first time all administered the assessment on their campuses.

Megan Brown, project manager for the Utah System of Higher Education, said the institutional research officials at each college and university were tasked with developing random samples to guide survey administration on their campuses. State higher education officials collected and compiled the data into a systemwide snapshot.

The percentage of respondents compared to number of enrolled students at each college varied from less than 1% at Salt Lake Community College to more than 9% at Snow College.

USU had the most respondents with 1,157 followed by Dixie State University with 824.

Snow College, the smallest school in the system, had 534 respondents, 10 more than Weber State University and 53 fewer than the state’s largest school, Utah Valley University.

Brown said most of the respondents were students in their first or second year of college and ranged in age from 18-24. Fifty-nine percent identified as female.

Regent Patricia Jones, who was co-founder, president and researcher of the marketing and research firm Dan Jones and Associates, also expressed concerns about the assessment’s administration and results.

“I think we could probably consider this directional information. I think it should alarm all of us that that many people answered that way,” Jones said.

However, there was no information about the methodology in the report presented to the board, and “it is not a random sample,” she said.

It was a large sample but it was not proportional to the number of students at each institution, meaning tolerated errors would be different at SLCC than some of the state’s larger institutions, Jones said.

“The fact that it is not randomly selected is troubling to me,” she said.

In spring 2020, all institutions will administer the Healthy Minds Study survey, which screens respondents for major mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, nonsuicidal self‐injury and suicidal ideation. That data will also guide the institutions as they develop their five-year plans.

The Healthy Minds survey is strictly about mental health while the National College Health Assessment covers students’ health habits, behaviors and perceptions.

According to the national association’s “frequently asked questions” page about the national survey, most web surveyors experience a range of 10% to 35% return.

“The average response is 19-20%. Thus, in the absence of a campus-specific history with web-based surveys, you may want to estimate the number of contacts based on a 20% return,” it says.

Carrie Mayne, associate commissioner for Workforce and Institutional Research, said she started her position with Utah System of Higher Education while the survey was already underway.

Institutional research staff did create random samples, she said.

“The responses, yes, could have a bias in them, but the samples do not have a bias in them so there was some science initially,” she said.

Mayne said she was told the assessment maker and vendor “supported us in ensuring that there were statistically significant responses. But I think President Wyatt does have a point that there could be particular questions in which statistical significance for that question was not achieved.”

University of Utah President Ruth Watkins said reliable data is needed to better meet needs of students.

“If we’re talking about half of our students that are reporting depression and anxiety, trying to solve that problem with a traditional one-on-one counselor is not going to be possible. How we design the programs really needs to be driven by good data,” Watkins said.

Weber State University President Brad Mortensen said WSU has used the assessment for several years. It is nationally normed and used across the country to help guide policy and program decisions.

The trends are getting more worrisome, he said, but “I do think there’s some value from this. I would encourage us not to dismiss the survey entirely.”

Three years ago, student government leaders at Utah State University declared a “mental health crisis” on the Logan campus after four- to six-week waits to see counselors at the campus run Counseling and Psychological Services. Those efforts spread to other campuses in the system, with student governments likewise demanding public policy leaders address the issue.

A few months later, the regents created a working group to study mental health issues and develop recommendations that were later adopted by the full board.

In 2017, the Utah Legislature gave unanimous passage to a resolution that called on lawmakers and the governor to declare mental health issues a public health crisis at Utah higher education institutions. It also urged government and community groups to seek productive, long-term solutions to address the crisis.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said three years ago, Utah State University had four- to six-month waits for appointments at Counseling and Psychological Services. The waits were four to six weeks.