Final Might, lawmakers gathered in Morgantown for scheduled interim committee conferences on West Virginia College’s campus.
Logan Riffey, now a senior at WVU, was eager to satisfy with them to debate college students’ elevated want for psychological well being companies. College students had been struggling — each earlier than and within the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic — and the yr earlier than, three WVU college students had killed themselves.
“[Lawmakers] had been very open to listening to our concepts,” Riffey mentioned. “They confirmed us that they cared about this situation that we dropped at them.”
However he mentioned he’s seen no follow-up since then.
Regardless of the interim conferences, the place lawmakers had been advised by the director of WVU’s on-campus counseling heart of disturbing will increase in reported suicide makes an attempt and suicide threats, payments to require state universities to check the efficacy of their psychological well being care packages haven’t moved.
And now, lawmakers are advancing one other invoice that some say will make the issue even worse: permitting hid carry weapons in lots of areas of the state’s public schools and universities.
“As a psychologist, because the director of the counseling heart, and as a dad or mum, I’m horrified,” mentioned Dr. T. Anne Hawkins, director of the Carruth Middle for Counseling and Psychological Companies. “I actually imagine that when we have now college students who’ve melancholy, college students who’ve anxiousness, I’m unsure that growing their entry to weapons is smart. What we all know is that having weapons on campus will increase the chance of gun violence on our campus.”
Requires psychological well being laws fall on deaf ears
Final January, Riffey felt momentum going into the legislative session. He was advocating for a invoice that might have pushed universities to check the efficacy of their psychological well being care packages, develop extra complete care entry plans and have the Larger Schooling Coverage Fee give you a funding plan. It was in the end launched by Home Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, and Home Minority Chief Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha.
However despite having each the Republican and Democratic leaders on board, the invoice by no means got here up earlier than a committee. A concurring decision asking a legislative interim committee to check lots of the identical points handed the Home, however died within the Senate.
However nonetheless, the momentum continued. In Might, lawmakers devoted an interim assembly to the topic. Throughout that assembly, Hawkins advised the interim Joint Standing Committee on Schooling that within the 2021-2022 college yr at WVU, the variety of reported suicide makes an attempt, the variety of suicide threats and the variety of welfare checks on college students of concern had been all double what that they had been proper earlier than COVID.
She requested lawmakers to fund extra counselors, together with in grades Ok-12, to raised put together college students for all times after highschool. She requested for a significant examine of the efficacy of varied psychological well being packages, and learn how to implement them in West Virginia, in addition to consideration to filling psychological well being care vacancies in areas that lack the companies across the state.
“That’s the million greenback query,” Hawkins mentioned in response to a query about what laws is likely to be required. “We’ve gotta have clinicians, we’ve gotta take a look at the nationwide information, and we’ve gotta give you one thing that’s higher than merely 50-minute hours. It needs to be broader.”
However to this point this yr, the one invoice in response is one much like final yr’s invoice; this time, Skaff is the one sponsor and the invoice has but to be thought-about by a committee.
But the campus carry invoice is transferring. It will permit college students to hold hid weapons on most areas of campus, and require colleges to offer safe storage of these weapons in dorms and residential amenities. It handed the Senate final week, however nonetheless has to cross the Home.
Sen. Rupie Phillips, R-Logan, the invoice’s lead sponsor, mentioned in an interview that he doesn’t see the difficulty as linked to issues about psychological well being, and has been making an attempt to get the same regulation handed since nicely earlier than the requires campus psychological well being funding elevated through the pandemic.
“If anyone wished to do one thing, harm themselves or mass destruction, they may go up right here to Lowe’s and make a potato gun out of plastic pipe,” Phillips mentioned. “It may trigger extra mass destruction than a single shot can.”
The invoice moved despite opposition from a number of state college leaders, particularly citing issues about introducing weapons into a university atmosphere the place an growing variety of college students are experiencing psychological well being crises, and the place there’s been a recorded enhance in suicides and suicide makes an attempt. Plus, Hawkins cited the prevalence of alcohol and medicines amongst college-aged adults as a selected concern, in addition to research which have proven this age group is extra more likely to be impulsive than older adults.
Notably, analysis has repeatedly proven that entry to firearms is without doubt one of the main predictors of suicide, and in West Virginia suicides account for a majority of firearms deaths.
Phillips mentioned that he doesn’t imagine information linking gun entry to suicide.
“I can write something down and name it information,” Phillips mentioned.
He added that he believes college students seemingly have already got weapons on campus. “In case you stroll into Walmart in Morgantown, I’d virtually guess you that each 10 individuals you stroll by, in all probability six of them’s obtained a gun. That’s my information.”
In a letter despatched to lawmakers by WVU President Gordon Gee and Marshall College President Brad Smith, the directors cited psychological well being issues as one in every of their major causes for opposing the invoice.
The Senate did amend the invoice in response to a few of Gee and Smith’s requests. Because it stands, the invoice wouldn’t permit hid weapons in on-campus day care amenities, at spectator occasions like soccer video games with attendance of greater than 1,000, in rooms the place pupil or school disciplinary hearings are held, particular person places of work, in psychological well being care amenities, in all areas of dorms apart from widespread areas, and different “safe” buildings. Colleges will even have to offer some kind of safe storage for the weapons.
WVU will increase psychological well being companies with out assist from Charleston
Azeem Khan, a WVU Pupil Authorities Affiliation member who helped creator the campus psychological well being invoice launched by Skaff and Hanshaw final yr, sees the campus carry invoice as instantly associated to the state of scholars’ psychological well-being.
“I feel that they’re very a lot intertwined,” Khan mentioned. “We’ve obtained so many challenges with psychological well being. In my private opinion, I don’t assume the campus carry invoice can be useful.”
Like Riffey, Khan has been deeply concerned in pupil efforts to push lawmakers and Gov. Jim Justice to handle a rising psychological well being disaster being quickly exacerbated by the pandemic.
Efforts to foyer the Governor’s workplace to assist fund psychological well being companies at West Virginia schools as Justice was doling out the final of the state’s CARES Act funds failed.
Nonetheless, with out assistance from the Governor or Legislature, WVU has elevated pupil entry to psychological well being companies for the reason that begin of the pandemic. To take action, the college instituted a $12 psychological well being service charge per pupil earlier than the start of the autumn 2021 semester, and acquired non-public grant funding.
The college additionally spent a small quantity — simply over $300,000 of $100 million — of its federal COVID reduction funds on psychological well being companies like increasing telehealth care. The vast majority of that federal cash went to direct assist for college students, stemming the unfold of the virus on campus, increasing digital choices and making up for tens of millions in losses with out elevating tuition.
Hawkins’ Carruth Middle has elevated its counseling employees; the college additionally started a telehealth counseling service and the varsity opened the “Wholesome Minds College,” an initiative to offer college students long-term psychological well being companies, whereas the Carruth Middle focuses on pressing care and disaster administration.
However Khan and different college students who continued to foyer for elevated entry to psychological well being care say there’s nonetheless a protracted technique to go. They hope there’s nonetheless an opportunity for lawmakers to transcend listening, and put coverage and funding behind a bigger psychological well being effort.
“I feel that legislators, in addition to the Governor, have been receptive to our concepts, however I feel at instances they don’t see our priorities,” mentioned Avery Conner, one other member of the WVU Pupil Authorities Affiliation. “There’s at all times extra to do.”
The 988 Suicide and Disaster Lifeline is a hotline for people in disaster or for these seeking to assist another person. To talk with a educated listener, name 988.