A campus consensus story to support student mental health

(UPDATED, 2:34 p.m., with cost figures from Boise State University.)

The pandemic has not created new mental health issues on campus, said Matt Nees, Boise State University’s director of counseling services.

Instead, the pandemic has exacerbated existing problems, such as anxiety, depression and trauma. Loneliness and homesickness — already a priority for Boise State counselors, before COVID — only got worse. Students felt physically alone and isolated in a polarized, politicized climate. “People are much more likely to be vulnerable because everyone walks around with their gloves up,” the niece said.

So, the demand for mental health services has increased and intensified. The niece sums up the past two years in one painful refrain. “My mind immediately goes to preventing suicide.”

Niece’s expanded department will add counselors for the 2022-23 school year. A team accustomed to paying its bills through insurance collections will receive an infusion of support from student fees.

It’s a story of campus consensus — as university administrators and student leaders have united around the need to address mental health.

Stretched department

The stigma surrounding mental health is diminishing and more people are willing to seek help – and as the niece is quick to point out, that’s a good thing.

Matt Nephew

But it also adds more strain on Boise State’s stretched counseling department. And this creates an obstacle at the beginning of the process. A caller often has to wait four to six weeks for an initial intake session and then another two weeks for a full counseling session. In other words, a caller who decides to seek help – sometimes after reaching a crisis point – often waits two months before counseling can begin in earnest.

The new employees should reduce wait times, the niece said.

Boise State is adding five staff members: four counselors and a psychiatric nurse. The university is still conducting interviews for two counselors, and those positions likely won’t be filled when fall classes begin Aug. 22.

When the four new counselors are on the job, Boise State will have 13 ½ full-time counseling positions. However, Boise State will still not meet accreditation standards.

Colleges and universities must make “every effort” to have at least one full-time professional counselor for every 1,000 to 1,500 students, the International Accreditation of Counseling Services’ written standards say.

Boise State’s counseling staff serves more than 25,000 students as well as faculty, staff and dependents.

Where does the money come from?

Boise State student fees will fund the new positions.

While statewide, undergraduate tuition will be frozen for the third year in a row, that freeze does not cover student fees. Boise State’s fall tuition will increase by $304 — the largest increase among four-year schools in the state.

The newly created $4.9 million in student fees will not all go to counseling. For example, Boise State will use some of the money to address gender equity issues in athletics. About $575,000 will fund the newly hired consultants.

Consensus behind counseling

Kenneth Huston

In March 2021, Kenneth Houston ran for president of the Associated Students of Boise State University and pledged to find funding for one new mental health counselor.

“Our money is as tight as anyone’s, especially this year. We do want to allocate those funds in the (ASBSU) non-negotiable budget to fund one of those positions,” Houston told Boise State’s student newspaper, The Arbiter.

Huston and his running mate Sarah Smith were elected. A year later, Houston spoke before the State Board of Education, advocating for a fee increase that would help hire five mental health workers.

Despite his reservations about Boise State’s budget structure — and the use of tuition and fees to cover more than half of the university’s bills — Houston urged the State Board to accept the higher fees and address mental health.

“These increases are critically needed,” Houston said.

The state board unanimously approved the fee increases for all four-year schools, including Boise State.

There is consensus behind Boise State’s hiring of consultants, with credit shared freely.

The niece gives some of the credit to university president Marlene Tromp. When Niece participated in interviewing 2019 presidential candidates, Trump vowed to address student mental health. “(And) she follows him,” the niece said.

Houston gives credit to administrators. During her commencement address in May, Houston singled out Senior Associate Dean of Students Lauren Ow and a niece “for your fight to ensure that the minds of our students are well cared for in this environment of mental health crisis.”

The niece, in turn, called Houston a “great advocate” for student mental health.

Which puts Niece in a position to hold student-funded positions. He says he’s not surprised by the funding for the students, but he’s grateful.

“This is definitely not unusual in terms of other counseling centers around the country,” he said. “It might be a little unusual for Idaho, where there’s still that resilience, go it alone, pull yourself up by your bootstraps mentality. …

“(But) the mindset of the generation is changing. Stigma is diminishing. Mental health, that very term, comes first for all students. Now it’s just kind of baked into all the conversations.

Kevin Richert writes weekly analysis on education policy and education policy. Look for his stories every Thursday.

Kevin Richert

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education policy and education policy. He has more than 30 years of journalism experience in Idaho. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; “Idaho Reports” on Idaho Public Television; and “Idaho Matters” on Boise Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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