Students face mental health care barriers. A proposed law might help
Meaghan Birnie lost a friend and teammate to suicide in 2019 and because of that, she now works to improve mental health awareness among students at high schools and colleges.
But Birnie’s own experiences also drive her work.
“I had a deep bout and struggle with depression when I was in high school, and I actually tried to take my own life twice in high school,” Birnie said. “And she was there through it all with me.”
When she went to college at Penn State, Birnie said mental health services were very limited.
“I had a meeting with a therapist there ... and basically they said they didn't have another appointment with that person for three months,” she said. “So I went back three months later and had to start all over again, because they see so many people, and they said, ‘What's your name again?’”
The lack of mental health services at schools and colleges is a national issue. Young people are enduring a mental health crisis so severe that the U.S. surgeon general issued an advisory in 2021, noting that “the challenges today’s generation of young people face are unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate.”
It hits home in Western New York.
Earlier this year, Rochester Institute of Technology’s student magazine, Reporter, published an article detailing student concerns about the campus’s Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS. In the story, students cited long wait times for appointments and a lack of long-term care options.
At the time, the director of CAPS said the center isn’t designed for long-term care. That’s the case at campuses across the country.
A study published in 2021 by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine recommends that universities coordinate with community-based resources to ensure continuity of care for students. And a 2020 study published by Cambridge University Press found that poorer continuity of care corresponded with higher mortality rates among people with mental health disorders.
“When you're struggling ... it's hard enough to make that first step to go and seek help,” Birnie said. “So when you do that and you get denied ... it just pushes you even further back than before.”
As Birnie struggled to receive adequate care at college, she wasn’t able to see her mental health provider back home in Massachusetts through telehealth. State laws prevented interstate appointments regardless of continuity of care.
Craig Cypher is a sports psychologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center. He said at some colleges, more jobs are being created for mental health practitioners embedded in athletic departments.
“I feel hopeful about the way things are changing, and they may not be changing as fast or as quickly as we need them to,” Cypher said. “The number of posted positions I've seen in the last two or three years has just kind of exploded exponentially.”
Cypher works with student-athletes and said some of his patients run into problems that are similar to Birnie's.
“If I have an athlete who was here in Rochester and then they move out of state, they can't continue with me for mental health services,” he said. “I think there's things that we could be doing that at the state level we're not doing in terms of being able to provide continuity care.”
Many states have a law to remove that barrier. It’s called PSYPACT and allows for inter-state therapy sessions that can be helpful for out-of-state students and people who are traveling.
To date, nearly 40 states have adopted it. In New York state, a bill to enact PSYPACT laws is sitting in the state Senate's higher education committee.