Lisa F. Young, Adobe Stock
With limited resources, Utah public colleges are attempting to do more to connect students struggling with mental health issues to helpful resources.

SALT LAKE CITY — With limited resources, Utah public colleges are attempting to do more to connect students struggling with mental health issues to helpful resources.

Some have imposed student fees or they use a portion of second-tier tuition to hire more mental health professionals. Utah State University has also hired part-time therapists at its regional campuses.

There's a growing demand for services, which James Morales, USU's vice president of student affairs, says is "a very positive thing."

"It's helped students understand that they don't to suffer in silence, that there are people out there and services available to them to help support them," said Morales.

That said, there is not "a single modality that can meet students needs. There has to be a really broad approach to this," he said.

Public universities are encouraging students to use the SafeUT app, which provides confidential and anonymous two-way communication with crisis counselors at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute. The app was developed with funding from the Utah Legislature, which has provided ongoing support.

"Our crisis counselors are on duty 24 hours a day. We are always asking people to call or text us if they are having any sort of problems or concerns about anything in their lives," said Barry Rose, the institute's director of crisis services.

"Certainly if they’re feeling unsafe or suicidal or know someone that is, we’d be happy to support them and work with them, getting support to those folks. There is help. We can help those people."

Already, hundreds of Utah college students have used the app to seek assistance.

Between July 1 and Nov. 30, there were 876 chats between students at public colleges and universities and crisis counselors.

On average, there were 24 threads per chat or a total of 21,351 threads during the time period.

Neither Westminster College nor Brigham Young University have contracted for the service but University Neuropsychiatric Institute officials have reached out to both institutions with the hope that they, too, will enroll and promote its use to students, officials said.

Morales said SafeUT is one important resource, but the university, students' families, community resources, national hotlines and private therapists also have important roles to play.

"These are all part of a quiver of different arrows, if you will, that need to be in place," he said.

USU student leaders brought the issue to the forefront in 2017, declaring a mental health crisis on the Logan campus after students experienced long waits to meet with campus mental health professionals.

They urged student leaders on other campuses to advocate as well. The Utah State Board of Regents impaneled a working group that developed policy that requires state colleges and universities to assess students' mental health needs, service utilization and regularly report to the board on this issue.

In coming months, the regents will consider adding a recommendation that state institutions work toward national standards of professionals-to-student ratios in counseling centers, which some standards say is one full-time professional to 1,000 to 1,500 students.

Shawn Wood, community liaison for the University of Utah, said the U. is "working hard to provide the best care possible to our students."

Recently, the U. hired two new counselors in the University Counseling Center and it has developed a community referral base for students who need more long-term and specialized care "and we help them access these resources."

The campus counseling center also provides mental health training for faculty and staff on a variety of mental health-related topics, including tips for working with distressed students and suicide prevention, he said.

While there is clearly a need for a broad array of services, Morales said the added benefit is that people are talking openly about mental health, which helps to eliminate stigma.

Growing numbers of students recognize that "It's OK for me to say I'm not doing well and I need some help," Morales said.

Counseling services are available on the Logan campus five days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. but counselors also respond as needed if there has been some event that has affected the campus.

Wait times for appointments go up as the semester proceeds, which occurs at colleges nationwide, Morales said.

Students' cases are triaged and "we do not turn away students who are in crisis. We do not put them on a waitlist. We bring them in and they are able to see a therapist. They are prioritized so they have access."

1 comment on this story

Other students are placed on waitlists. "Sometimes there are statements made out there where the waitlists are six to eight weeks. While that may be true, for those who have an issue that can be dealt with later. But those who are in crisis, at Utah State and at most schools, they're seen immediately," Morales said.

USU's goal is to "do our best with the resources that we can and try to work closely with partners where they are available in the community, public services, religious services and really try to address this issue in a holistic manner," he said.