WVU leaders tell lawmakers about increasing mental health concerns for students

West Virginia University leaders told legislators about ongoing efforts to support the many students coping with mental health challenges.

T. Anne Hawkins

“What we know is our students are absolutely, really struggling,” said Dr. T. Anne Hawkins, director of the university’s Carruth Center for Counseling and Psychological Services.

“We know that they are disconnected. You know, the college counseling center around the state and around the country are one of the most popular places on the campus and they have been for the last 10 years. We increasingly are seeing more and more students.”

Hawkins was speaking Sunday afternoon before the Joint Standing Committee on Education as lawmakers gathered for interim meetings in Morgantown this week.

The mental health of students at West Virginia University and at other colleges around the state has been an issue of increasing concern as the covid-19 pandemic exacerbates pressures that already existed.

“This is 10 years in the making. We’ve been seeing this increase for the last 10 years,” she said. “We have 10 years worth of college student data that tells us this began long before the pandemic. And the pandemic has made it worse.

“And the pandemic has made a lot of things worse. We’re all more vulnerable. Not only do we have a recession, we have a war. So we are juggling a lot.”

Hawkins showed a series of slides showing that issues like depression, generalized anxiety and socialized anxiety have been on the rise. Participation in counseling has been increasing, but so have threats such as non-suicidal self-injury and thoughts of suicide.

Over 2021-22, she said, WVU Campus Police responded to 10 suicide attempts and 19 threats of suicide, both numbers that increased significantly from recent years.

“What we’re seeing is a dramatic increase in depression. We’re seeing students who are more anxious. We’re seeing students who have more distress,” Hawkins said.

WVU made adjustments by increasing counseling center hours, hiring more staff and adjusting schedules to try to be available to more students. Over the longer term, Hawkins suggested putting additional effort into training more counselors and clinicians who want to stay in West Virginia.

Student leaders pushed for additional resources like extending telehealth options for students, creating hotlines for specific groups of students at risk such as veterans or sexual assault survivors or establishing a mobile counseling center for students with limited transportation options. More investment could go toward public service campaigns to reduce stigma.

Chloe Hernandez

WVU’s student body president, Chloe Hernandez, a junior double-majoring in neuroscience and psychology from Lorton, Va., also spoke to lawmakers.  She said mental health is a top concern expressed by students and described a very public student suicide one afternoon in April 2021.

“For those of you who may not know, a young man had jumped from the parking garage across the street. You could see the horror and disbelief on every single person’s face. And news of this tragedy spread quickly through campus, followed by deep sorrow at losing one of our fellow Mountaineers,” she said.

“For weeks after, mental health and resources available on campus became a primary focus of discussion among students.”

Discussions focused on how and why such a tragedy could happen. Student leaders focused on what resources are available and what gaps exist.

“But a few months later, in December 2021, a note was found on campus detailing what would be another instance of self-inflicted harm. As you can imagine, worry spread quickly throughout campus and conversations on mental health became primary focus yet again.”

She urged increased accessibility to mental health resources, particularly through an increased number of clinicians.

“Scrolling on TikTok or Instagram, it’s really easy to assume that life seems perfect for a living and it sets an impossible standard for our youth,” Hernandez said. “However, with modern stressors, such as social media, the pressure placed on young people to be perfect is intense. The pressure especially true for those in competitive academic fields.”