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As mental health crisis deepens on Florida campuses, universities are left to find their own solutions

Dark clouds loom over the University of South Florida campus, where officials say they are working to alleviate a shortage of mental health counselors in time for the 2017-18 school year. At USF and other Florida universities, the shortage is prompting schools to curtail services to students in crisis who need immediate help. The Legislature declined extra funding this year to address the problem, leaving individual schools to figure out solutions on their own. [Times files]

l, an incoming freshman at USF looks at the dark clouds looming over campus while she's on a scavenger hunt for the school's seal with her group on Tuesday, August 1, 2016. Engel is apart of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Academy (STEM) on campus where students arrived early for orientation. OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times
Dark clouds loom over the University of South Florida campus, where officials say they are working to alleviate a shortage of mental health counselors in time for the 2017-18 school year. At USF and other Florida universities, the shortage is prompting schools to curtail services to students in crisis who need immediate help. The Legislature declined extra funding this year to address the problem, leaving individual schools to figure out solutions on their own. [Times files] l, an incoming freshman at USF looks at the dark clouds looming over campus while she's on a scavenger hunt for the school's seal with her group on Tuesday, August 1, 2016. Engel is apart of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Academy (STEM) on campus where students arrived early for orientation. OCTAVIO JONES | Times
Published Jun. 22, 2017

TAMPA — With wait times at university counseling centers spilling into the four-week range across the state, Florida's universities made an appeal.

Fund the overburdened mental health system, they asked the Legislature, and give students some relief.

Lawmakers weren't convinced. They felt the universities had room in their budgets to figure out solutions themselves. For the second year in a row, they rejected the request for mental health funding.

So this week, a state higher education leader issued a challenge of sorts. On Tuesday, Norm Tripp took the podium at a Board of Governors summit at the University of South Florida and asked schools to take mental health into their own hands. They will have to dig into existing funding to patch serious staffing holes, he said.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Crisis on campus

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"This is something that will happen," Tripp said. "We will step up. We will make sure that the funding occurs, and we will close that gap. We will no longer be a system that cannot service the students that it has with their mental health needs."

Just months ago, Tripp and other state leaders called it a crisis. More students than ever are seeking help. They wait weeks for counseling, but centers lack the staff to handle the demand. Sessions get delayed or cut in half. Prevention becomes an afterthought as crisis visits spike. Budget cuts, growing enrollments and unmanageable case loads leave counselors overburdened.

Only four of 12 state universities meet the industry's recommended ratio of one counselor per 1,000 to 1,500 students. Two barely meet the minimum.

In the 2015-16 academic year, counseling centers at Florida universities handled more than 9,100 crisis visits — more than double the year before. Emergency hospitalizations and counseling sessions jumped dramatically, bearing out national research that shows more students with serious mental health issues are entering college.

When universities made their appeal for $14.5 million this year, USF's need was most acute. With 25 new hires, staff would have more than doubled.

The request failed, but the university system received a general funding increase. Tripp said that will help universities deal with staffing shortages.

At USF, provost Ralph Wilcox said the school already has a plan.

"We'll have 50,000 students descend on the USF System community at the end of August, so we can't wait," he said. "Rest assured, we are certainly going to have stepped-up resources in place."

First, USF plans to hire more counselors who diagnose and treat the most serious cases.

"We're absolutely going to improve that ratio, that's a commitment we have," Wilcox said.

But USF is still weighing how many new counselors to hire. Leaders plan to supplement the traditional battalion of psychiatrists and psychologists with mental health coaches who focus on wellness and support.

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Coaches will serve students dealing with short-term stressors like breakups or finals — issues with no immediate risk factor. The idea is to open up counseling appointments for students with starker needs.

"It doesn't make sense for a student who is confronting stress during midterms to get in line to meet with a psychiatrist," Wilcox said. "It's better that they meet with a team of mental health counselors who can help guide them toward coping."

Some of those coaches, Wilcox said, will be trained students from USF's College of Behavioral and Community Sciences who are on a path to become mental health practitioners.

Another plan is to sharpen the focus on early intervention.

Faculty will be trained to identify students who may show signs of mental health issues, said Dr. Joe Puccio, medical director of USF's Student Health Services and interim co-director of the counseling center. Counseling staffers will ramp up prevention and education efforts.

And the university is rolling out a two-pronged online system that it hopes will relieve pressure on the counseling center.

Since last year, students have been able to tune into personal therapy sessions via webcam. And this year, USF is introducing modules that help students learn about common issues like depression and anxiety. Puccio hopes the online education will let students know to seek help before reaching a crisis point.

USF leaders expect that their plan will require new investment, but they'll also look to draw from the budget of student affairs and student services. It's not clear yet what programs or budget areas may take a hit, or how much the roster of new hires will cost. But Wilcox said USF is ready to spend.

"Just because we didn't receive the funding doesn't mean it slips off the list of priorities," he said. "In fact, it has prompted us to bring a greater focus and discipline."

The Board of Governors has not yet laid out a plan for keeping universities accountable to the challenge, but Tripp said this week he will keep the pressure on.

Contact Claire McNeill at (727) 893-8321 or cmcneill@tampabay.com.

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