Officials at the University of Maryland have pledged to spend an additional $5 million on student mental health services at the state's flagship College Park campus over the next 10 years, the largest investment in counseling services there in decades.
The decision was made this week following years of stagnant investments in psychiatric services at the university's counseling and health centers, despite large spikes in student demand. It comes on the heels of a murder-suicide involving a mentally ill student just off campus in February, which shined a spotlight on the imbalance between counseling services and demand.
The $500,000-per-year investment will be drawn from a corporate donation of $1.2 million per year over 10 years that was recently made to the university by PepsiCo. Inc., said Linda Clement, the university's vice president for student affairs. The beverage giant holds lucrative vending contracts with the university.
The request for the discretionary funding came from the counseling and health centers, and was approved by President Wallace D. Loh and Provost Mary Ann Rankin. Loh said there was a need to invest more in mental health services after the murder-suicide, in which police say graduate student Dayvon Green fatally shot one roommate and wounded another before killing himself.
The counseling center saw a 23 percent increase in the number of students seeking services between 2010 and 2012, officials said. The percentage of those students deemed emergency or priority patients jumped from 14 percent in 2011 to 24 percent in 2012.
Clement said university officials are "thrilled" with their decision to utilize the corporate funding to address the problem.
"We can document very clearly that the needs have been increasing, and I think all of us, as responsible leaders here, felt like this was really a great opportunity to infuse new resources," she said.
The funding will be used to hire three new staff psychologists at the counseling center and the equivalent of one-and-a-half new positions at the health center, she said. The increases will shift the current staff-to-student ratio from about 1 to 1,854 to about 1 to 1,500, according to the funding proposal, bringing it closer to the standard set by the International Association of Counseling Services.
"We haven't had an infusing of this kind of resources into counseling and mental health in decades, so this is significant," Clement said. "In the last few years we've been in a position of no increases in state funds, and this is going to be terrific."
Samantha Zwerling, president of the university Student Government Association, said students are excited about the new funding, which was first reported in The Diamondback student newspaper on Tuesday. Zwerling and the SGA had launched a campaign to raise awareness on campus last month, in part by publishing opinion columns in The Diamondback by students frustrated with current mental health services.
Zwerling said Clement called her Monday to give her the news of the funding allocation.
"It shows responsiveness from the university, and it shows that students can make a difference," Zwerling said. "I've had students call me thanking me for the work we did and telling me how excited they are for this."
Clement said the SGA effort, the Diamondback articles and coverage in The Baltimore Sun of the imbalance between services and demand helped move the issue forward, even though many university officials were already aware of the problem.
Following the coverage, the university's Parent Advisory Council began asking more questions about mental health services, and leaders across the university became more engaged on the issue, Clement said.
"I think the stories that you published and the stories that we saw in The Diamondback are very educational in nature, because people don't think about this often unless they have a loved one who is confronted with mental illness," Clement said. "I think the stories educated a lot more people on what the demand was."
Alison Malmon, founder and executive director of Active Minds, a mental health nonprofit that works on college campuses, applauded the university's decision.
"It's great news to hear, and I think it's important to note that Maryland is showing leadership in valuing students' overall wellness when thinking about their student body," Malmon said.
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