University of Connecticut students and administrators testify at state Capitol in support of mental health bill

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At the Storrs campus, Counseling and Mental Health Services is located on the fourth floor of Arjona. (File Photo/The Daily Campus)

University of Connecticut students and administrators testified in support of a bill regarding mental health services on campus at the Connecticut General Assembly Thursday afternoon.

State Bill 750, which was reviewed by the GA Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee, proposes “requir[ing] institutions of higher education to establish programs for the prevention and treatment of mental illnes for undergraduate and graduate students.”

Derek Pan, a sixth-semester molecular and cell biology major and chairman of the Student Services Committee of the Undergraduate Student Government, testified at the hearing.

Last fall, Pan authored a joint resolution with USG which, similar to the State Bill, encouraged UConn to implement a mental health module for students to access on campus.

“This Joint Resolution recognizes that a large percentage of students with mental health issues do not seek treatment despite ready resources available at many college institutions around the nation due to a lack of mental health literacy,” said Pan.

Pan outlined USG’s hopes for the implementation of this bill.

“We have moved to encourage the University of Connecticut to establish a mandatory module or educational resource for all incoming freshmen that educates them on the common mental health issues faced by college students, dispels common misconceptions and stigmas that surround mental health issues and treatment and points to professional resources both on and off campus that can be utilized,” Pan said.

Pan also advocated for adding language that would mandate a mental health literacy module for higher education students, similar to the mandatory drug and alcohol module students must pass as part of their enrollment.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 73 percent of college students say they have experienced mental health issues while in school. The report also claimed that 36 percent of students do not seek services because of the stigma surrounding mental health.

Suzanne Onorato, executive director of student health services at UConn, hopes the module will implement more programs that span throughout a student’s time in school.

“The First Year seminar is one phenomenal tool,” Onorato said. “We just need more … I like to talk about more of a structured approach that gets scaffolded over the four years. Where are the difficult transitions? Often times for sophomores picking a major, for students moving off campus and for students in their last semester of senior year, thinking about graduating and getting a job. I think we could think of the student as developing over the four or five years, [so that] by the time they graduate they know how to manage a lot of these challenging changes.”

Eleanor Daugherty, assistant vice president of Student Affairs and Dean of Students, regarded the bill as “an expression of support from the [General Assembly] for us doing the work that we’re doing in mental health.”

“I’m less concerned about a student getting an appointment than I am concerned about students knowing that we care for them and we believe in them,” she said. “The reality from the data that I have is that students are feeling overwhelmed and stressed, and with that come accompanying feelings of ‘I can’t do it.’ And I don’t believe that.”

In her testimony, Daugherty said “our institutions of higher education must be designed and resourced to support the wellness of all, rather than the sickness of the few.”

“When loneliness presents as a prevalent obstacle to student mental health, a comprehensive approach involving community engagement, training of staff beyond mental health practitioners, and interactive online methods are tools for success across our college and universities campuses,” Daugherty said. “I am proud of our students for coming forward and working with us to develop systematic intervention that enables us to holistically respond to the emerging mental health crisis,” she said.

Republican State Rep. Whit Betts of the 78th House District, a member of the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee, stressed the correlation between mental health and violence.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Betts said. “Everybody has been so focused on guns, when they don’t realize that the common denominator of these tragedies has been mental health. And we’ve known about it but we’ve never addressed it. In fact, we’ve reduced funding [for mental health programs] … Yes, it is expensive, yes, it is complicated, but that is the one thread. And until we address this issue, we’re going to have more and more tragedies like this, and I think that’s sad.”

Pan advised his fellow students to pursue improving their mental health through the many resources they have access to, both institutionally and communally.

“If you’re struggling with your mental health, don’t be afraid to reach out,” Pan said. “If you’re not comfortable reaching out to counseling or to professional services, definitely reach out to a peer because it’s important that you have a good community around you to support you, and that can provide positive support and validation for you. Once you take those little steps, maybe you can be open to taking further steps by seeking treatment in your mental health. I would definitely say reach out to someone. Someone will help you out.”


Penina Beede is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at Penina.Beede@uconn.edu.

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