Opinion: Students’ Mental Health Needs are Not Being Sufficiently Met on or off Campus
Graphic by Isis Coyle
Mental health issues are often difficult to tackle, especially in educational settings, largely due to the rising cost of care in the United States. Students at Willamette and other colleges are provided with several mental health services to try to solve common issues among higher education students, such as burnout, stress, anxiety, depression, and social issues. How do these services work? Is enough being done about this nationwide crisis?
There are students who are generally satisfied with the quality of mental health services at Willamette, but many indicate a lack of access as the main problem. Elliot Earles (‘26), for example, stated that he often finds it difficult to book counseling appointments at Bishop Wellness Center because of the high workload counselors already have, despite describing an overall positive experience with the services he used.
Don Thomson is the Associate Dean for Health and Well being, as well as the Director of Bishop Wellness Center. He stated that Willamette implemented Uwill in September of 2022, which is an online counseling service that connects patients and care providers in their state for therapy sessions. According to Thomson, all students are provided with 240 Uwill credits, which can buy up to four hours of video therapy, and students can buy additional credits at their cost. As of March 2023, each credit costs two dollars, and amounts to one minute of audio or video therapy. This means that a half-an-hour-long counseling session would cost the student $100 after having used their preexisting four hours of free therapy. If a student utilized four monthly hours of Uwill, they would have to pay $800 a month for the service, which amounts to over 60 hours of work for a minimum wage earner in Salem. “For a lot of reasons students will sometimes prefer to get counseling off-campus, and we help students navigate referral processes,” Thomson added.
Apart from Uwill, Bishop Wellness Center provides counseling appointments and crisis care free of charge. Depending on the time of the semester and the availability of counselors, Bishop Wellness Center provides schedule-ahead appointments or same-day appointments, but these mental health services are mostly designed for short-term care. In addition, all students can use the Mind Spa free of charge, which includes a multi-setting massage chair and full spectrum light.
Thomson stated that most schools in the country are dealing with mental health crises, but Oregon is one of the states most affected by it. “There aren’t enough providers in the community to meet the needs.” When asked about the causes of these issues, Thomson stated that this is mostly due to funding. “Oregon has the fewest hospital beds per patient for mental health crises [as well as] alcohol and drug services. The resources are there, but we have not invested in the infrastructure,” he added. Thomson also pointed out that the requirements to be licensed as a mental care provider are much stricter in Oregon than in most other states, especially in the minimum number of hours necessary before applying for a license, which insentivizes many professionals to move to states with lower hour requirements. “The bottom line is that there aren’t enough providers to meet the need,” he concluded. This issue, therefore, is not exclusive to Willamette, as it affects many other institutions.
Venus Edlin is an undergraduate student at Portland’s Lewis & Clark College, which is a liberal arts college similarly sized to Willamette. They are the Editor-In-Chief of The Mossy Log, Lewis & Clark’s student-run newspaper. “We have limited therapy services [at Lewis & Clark] that I have used before (...) It’s six sessions a semester maximum, except in extraneous circumstances. It’s meant to be short term (...) We also have some newer resources available including more support group options and a new service that connects athletes to resources on campus, but I haven’t used any of these,” Edlin stated. “We are in need of a way to be more proactively checking in on people in our community. There are numerous hoops to jump through in order to access the services that are available, with students often having to wait a long time to access them. I know many people fall through the cracks.”
Edlin additionally shared concerns about the lack of providers and the increasing demand for mental health services, which concurs with the mental care crisis and concerns that Thomson explained earlier. “Many individuals within the program are trying their best to accommodate students, but it is falling short of the campus’ needs. I have seen more energy devoted to mental health after [the pandemic], and I am hopeful resources will improve,” Edlin concluded.
The overall issue is therefore one of an immense disparity between service demand and supply. Although minor changes can be made at Willamette and other schools to make mental health services more efficient, this would most likely not outweigh the effects of the national and regional mental health crisis that students are experiencing. Despite high-quality services such as the ones provided at Lewis and Clark College and Willamette University, there is not enough supply to meet the needs of the students, and the possible solutions to this issue would most likely require long-term in-state policy changes and high investments in overall mental health improvements, both within the higher education system and in our country at large.