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Thursday, September 21, 2023


Our leaders are failing when it comes to students’ mental health

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Mental health matters a lot, especially in college. In many ways, keeping up with your mental health can be just as important as physical health if not more. 

But as the call for better mental health support has grown, state and university leaders have failed to answer.

In the wake of the tragic student deaths on campus last spring, campus activists rallied to ask the University to do something, anything. In a recent announcement, President and Chancellor Renu Khator responded with what was meant to be a step in the right direction.

The update largely focused on the findings of Khator’s appointed “Mental Health Taskforces”. The recommended changes were striking, including a renovation that left Agnes Arnold Hall surrounded by barred windows and tall metal fences.

While some studies have shown that preventing direct access to potential suicide options can decrease attempts, the same studies frequently recommended something the University lacks: a comprehensive mental health support system.

The fencing was installed as part of a multi-stage renovation effort that the university recently accelerated. While Agnes Arnold definitely could use the updates, is surrounding an aging building with prison fencing the best answer to a national mental health crisis?

One of the primary concerns raised by student protestors was the lack of funding for the Counseling and Psychological Services program (CAPS), the University’s student counseling services. CAPS has been consistently understaffed, with a counselor-to-student ratio (one per 2,122 students) far lower than recommended by professionals.

To add on, while Khator’s task force included an ongoing goal of increasing CAPS outreach potential (from 4 percent of the student body to 8 percent), the recommendations fall short of seriously addressing the problem.

The report recommends the “increasing of CAPS staffing strength through internships, community networks, and flexible qualifications”, but does not seek to significantly increase the number of full-time CAPS staff.

Increasing the visible presence of CAPS staff by embedding them in specific colleges or allocating space in the student center is an admirable goal. However, if the core issue of CAPS understaffing is not met, students are likely to continue suffering the same problems they have for years.

To put it simply, trying to meet the needs of a large student body without hiring more counselors is a recipe for disaster. Students have frequently reported suffering from long wait times and feeling “underserved” by CAPS staff, something that a few extra interns are unlikely to solve.

Other task force initiatives include a counseling program dubbed “CoogsCare”, which combines CAPS 24/7 crisis hotline with training resources for students.

As much as community support can be deeply impactful, “CoogsCare” training runs the risk of placing a heavy burden on students. “Checking in” on classmates and friends or attending free training is no substitute for on-campus mental health professionals.

While it can be easy to exclusively blame the University for an arguably clumsy response, the reality is not as simple as it may seem. UH is struggling with finding funding for mental health, but so is nearly every public university in Texas.

Mental health programs are largely funded through student fees, meaning that increasing staff would require taking funds from other student programs or increasing tuition. While a tuition increase could be a potential option, the Texas Legislature recently froze tuition across the state.

Alternatively, the University could attempt to find corporate sponsors to help fund mental health programs. Other options include petitioning the Texas Legislature to provide state funds specifically for counseling services.

Unfortunately, mental health rarely attracts the same kind of money that football programs do. Without a countrywide shift towards seeing mental health as real, important and worth investing in, students are likely to continue falling through the cracks.

No matter what, your mental health matters and so do you. Spreading awareness and being aware of campus resources like Cougars in Recovery and the LGBTQ Alumni Association matters. It might not be the best option long term, but something is better than nothing.

Malachi Spence Key is a journalism senior who can be reached at
[email protected]

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