CEDAR FALLS — Given time to make the case for full funding for public universities, Northern Iowa student body President Katie Evans focused on raising awareness for mental health concerns on campus.
She and student leaders across the regents institutions went to the Capitol in February to push for additional funding, both to address educational needs and to support increasing needs for mental health services.
“Students at the college level are facing a lot of new challenges and new people and new housing, etc.,” Evans said recently. “I think it’s a really rough time and some students really thrive and some students it’s really hard for, and the necessity of having these services for students in such a transitional period of their life, I think is really urgent.”
As the session continues, that full funding — UNI’s request is for an additional $7.7 million — is looking less and less likely to materialize.
But Evans and others active on the UNI campus were not ones to sit around and wait for the Iowa Legislature to act.
Efforts began last semester — in part a reaction to two students who committed suicide — to begin to raise awareness about mental health issues and boost support services where possible.
As activists and student leaders on campus began to grasp the needs on campus, they formed new mental health advisory committee to give a centralized focus to the issue at UNI.
Shelley O’Connell, director of the Student Health Clinic, chairs the advisory committee that comprises students, faculty and staff. The committee focuses on raising awareness about mental health issues.
“It seems like we had all these pockets of groups that were trying to do things, and ... we were thinking that the more that we get together the better our resources were going to be used and just collectively thinking about ways to support one another,” O’Connell said.
O’Connell and interim vice president for student affairs Jan Hanish agree there’s been more activism from students on mental health issues.
“They want to keep our feet to the fire and rightfully so,” Hanish said. “Students and staff alike, and faculty, they understand how we get there from here, that’s different. But everybody agrees that these are conversations that are just very, very important.”
One of the things the committee is working on is preparing to apply for a federal grant that would allow the university to hire for three years someone who could focus on mental health education and prevention activities on campus.
UNI has already hosted mental health panels led by students to talk about their experiences, and there are several active groups on campus that deal with mental illness and suicide prevention.
But with that increased awareness, has also come a growing demand for services.
“As we continue to have these conversations about awareness, I can anticipate that we will see increased usage and I think we need to see that as a good thing,” Hanish said, adding, “We should expect an increase if we’re doing this right, because people should be less stigmatized by seeking the service.”
Both David Towle, director of UNI’s Counseling Center, and O’Connell said they have seen an increased demand for mental health services.
Towle attributes that in part to the center providing a valuable service, as well as increased awareness and decreased stigma.
“I think there are probably some things going on in society in general, where we’re seeing more anxiety, more concern, more worry, more distress in people’s lives so they’re seeking assistance for it,” Towle said.
Towle and O’Connell have also pointed to increased accessibility, and better medications, that have allowed students with mental health disorders to be better able to attend college, whereas they may not have been able before.
While both acknowledged they would be able to use state funding to increase staff to better meet demands, they were realistic in the low likelihood of that happening. So, like student leaders, they’ve focused on alternative ways to offer support services on campus.