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Through telecounseling, SUNY aims to give students better access to mental health services

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State University of New York Trustees are moving forward with a proposal to provide all students with access to telecounseling and online mental health services. SUNY Trustees passed a directive for University administration to consider the use of the remote counseling services across the state.


The $1.5 million SUNY Student Telecounseling Network is an initiative that would create a partnership between SUNY’s academic medical centers and has been put into the state Senate’s one-house budget. Students on campuses with less adequate mental health resources would be linked to professionals from other SUNY schools through therapy performed remotely via webcam, phone or instant messaging.

With suicide being the second-leading cause of death among college students, the Mental Health Association of Erie County strongly approves of the measure, said Director of Community Advocacy Karl Shallowhorn. He said the initiative could lighten the load for college counseling centers across the state, which are “overloaded.”

“I’ve had many conversations with counseling staff from various campuses around here in Western New York, and they all say the same thing, that they’re getting more students come to the campus with pre-existing conditions—not even the ones who might have their first episode in college, but those who are already coming to college with their own experiences—that might need that support,” Shallowhorn said.

Student Assembly President Marc Cohen said the numbers are staggering. According to Cohen, 49 percent of those responding to a student information survey completed by 19,000 students responded as having an anxiety disorder, and 36 percent as having depression.

“These are huge numbers,” Cohen said. “The idea is to have our 64-campus network work together and help to get students the services that they need within SUNY.”

Cohen said the measure would be cost-saving.

“By using services that SUNY already has and by getting support from the state, the cost doesn’t have to fall on the shoulders of students and families,” Cohen said. “We can engage with really, incredibly qualified top-of-the-line health professionals without having to go to private firms or private practices,” Cohen said, adding that mental health is directly connected to students’ academic success.

The budget line item calls for a pilot program in which five campuses would work with other campuses that do not have the mental health resources necessary to best serve their students. The program could then be scaled-up across the system after analysis and review.

Shallowhorn said telecounseling is quite effective despite the physical distance between patient and counselor.

“Certainly if the person is in really severe crisis, whether they’re having a psychotic episode, or they may be in serious distress as far as being suicidal, I think of course that that in-person contact is really, really important. But what we’re talking about here is for many students, it might be the initial idea that they’re having their first encounter with major depressive disorder or anxiety—something that isn’t as pronounced, but they may need still that early intervention, which can be done through telecounseling,” Shallowhorn said.

He also thinks it could make counseling less stigmatizing, making students less afraid to seek help.

“Sometimes students might be concerned about going to a site, maybe on campus, that might be more visible, to be seen in that type of a venue. They may not want to be noticed,” Shallowhorn said.

Cohen thanked State Senator Ken LaValle for his support for the measure. The Student Assembly urges in the “strongest terms possible” for the State Assembly to adopt the measure and for Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign it into law.

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