Last May, lawmakers gathered in Morgantown for scheduled interim committee meetings on the West Virginia University campus.
Logan Riffey, now a senior at WVU, wanted to meet with them to discuss students’ increased need for mental health services. Students have struggled — both before and after the COVID-19 pandemic — and a year earlier, three WVU students killed themselves.
“[Lawmakers] they were very open to hearing our ideas,” Riffi said. “They showed us that they care about this problem that we brought to them.”
But he said he has seen no follow-up since then.
Despite midterm meetings in which lawmakers were told by the director of WVU’s campus counseling center about disturbing increases in reported suicide attempts and suicide threats, bills requiring public universities to study the efficacy of their mental health programs have not have moved.
And now lawmakers are advancing another bill that some say will make the problem even worse: allowing concealed carry of guns in many parts of public colleges and universities.
“As a psychologist, as the director of the counseling center and as a parent, I am horrified,” said Dr. T. Ann Hawkins, director of the Carruth Center for Counseling and Psychological Services. “I truly believe that when we have students who have depression, students who have anxiety, I’m not sure that increasing their access to guns is wise. What we do know is that having guns on campus increases the risk of gun violence on our campus.”
Calls for mental health legislation fall on deaf ears
Riffey felt momentum going into the legislative session last January. He advocated for a bill that would have universities study the efficacy of their mental health care programs, develop more comprehensive plans for access to care and have the Higher Education Policy Commission come up with a funding plan. It was eventually introduced by House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, and House Minority Leader Doug Scaff, D-Kanawha.
But despite input from Republican and Democratic leaders, the bill never made it to committee. A matching resolution calling for an interim legislative committee to study many of the same issues passed the House but died in the Senate.
But still, the momentum continued. In May, the deputies devoted an interim session to the topic. During that meeting, Hawkins told the interim Joint Standing Committee on Education that during the 2021-2022 academic year at WVU, the number of reported suicide attempts, the number of suicide threats and the number of welfare checks on affected students doubled more than that were right before COVID.
She asked lawmakers to fund more counselors, including in grades K-12, to better prepare students for life after high school. She called for a large-scale study of the efficacy of various mental health programs and how to implement them in West Virginia, as well as attention to filling mental health vacancies in underserved areas of the state.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Hawkins said when asked what legislation might be required. “We need to have clinicians, we need to look at the national data and we need to come up with something that’s better than just 50-minute classes. It needs to be broader.”
But so far this year, the only bill in response is similar to last year’s; this time Skaff is the sole sponsor and the bill has not yet been considered by committee.
Still, the campus carry bill is moving. It would allow students to carry concealed weapons in most areas of campus and require schools to provide secure storage for those weapons in dormitories and apartment buildings. It passed the Senate last week but has yet to pass the House.
Sen. Rupi Phillips, R-Logan, the bill’s lead sponsor, said in an interview that she didn’t see the issue as related to mental health concerns and was trying to get a similar law passed, well before calls for campus mental health funding to increase during the the pandemic.
“If somebody wants to do something, get hurt or do mass destruction, they can go here to Lowe’s and make a potato gun out of a plastic tube,” Phillips said. “It can cause more mass destruction than a single shot.”
The bill was pushed through opposition from multiple public university leaders, particularly citing concerns about introducing guns into a college environment where more students are experiencing mental health crises and where suicides and suicide attempts have been on the rise. Hawkins also cited the prevalence of alcohol and drug use among college-aged adults as a particular concern, as well as studies showing that this age group is more likely to be impulsive than older adults.
It should be noted that research has repeatedly shown that access to firearms is one of the leading predictors of suicide, and in West Virginia suicides account for the majority of firearm deaths.
Phillips said he doesn’t believe data linking gun access to suicide.
“I can write anything down and call it data,” Phillips said.
He added that he believes students likely already have guns on campus. “If you walk into a Walmart in Morgantown, I’d almost bet that for every 10 people you walk by, probably six of them have a gun. This is my data.”
In a letter sent to lawmakers by WVU President Gordon Gee and Marshall University President Brad Smith, administrators cited mental health issues as one of their main reasons for opposing the bill.
The Senate amended the bill in response to some of Gee’s and Smith’s requests. As it stands, the bill would not allow concealed weapons in campus day cares, at spectator events such as football games with more than 1,000 people in attendance, in rooms where student or faculty disciplinary hearings are held, individual offices, in psychiatric care facilities, in all areas of the dormitories, excluding common areas, and other “secure” buildings. Schools will also have to provide some type of secure storage for weapons.
WVU increases mental health services without help from Charleston
Azeem Khan, a member of the WVU Student Government Association who helped craft the campus mental health bill introduced by Skaff and Hanshaw last year, sees the campus carry bill as directly related to the state of students’ mental well-being.
“I think they’re very intertwined,” Hahn said. “We have so many challenges with mental health. In my personal opinion, I don’t think a campus carry bill would be helpful.”
Like Riffey, Kahn has been deeply involved in student efforts to push lawmakers and Gov. Jim Justice to address the growing mental health crisis that has been rapidly exacerbated by the pandemic.
Efforts to lobby the governor’s office to help fund mental health services at West Virginia colleges while the justices were doling out the last of the state’s CARES Act funds have failed.
Still, without help from the governor or the Legislature, WVU has increased student access to mental health services since the pandemic began. To do this, the university introduced a mental health services fee of $12 per student before the start of the fall 2021 semester and received private grant funding.
The university also spent a small amount — just over $300,000 of its $100 million — of its federal COVID relief funds on mental health services such as expanding telehealth care. Most of that federal money went to direct aid for students, stemming the spread of the virus on campus, expanding virtual opportunities and making up for losses for millions without raising tuition.
Hawkins’ Carruth Center has increased its counseling staff; the university also launched a telehealth counseling service and the school opened Healthy Minds University, an initiative to provide long-term mental health services to students, while the Carruth Center focuses on acute care and crisis management.
But Hahn and other students who have continued to lobby for greater access to mental health care say there’s still a long way to go. They hope there’s still a chance lawmakers can go beyond listening and put policy and funding behind greater mental health efforts.
“I think the legislators, as well as the governor, are receptive to our ideas, but I think sometimes they don’t see our priorities,” said Avery Conner, another member of the WVU Student Government Association. “There’s always more to do.”
988 Lifeline for Suicide and Crisis is a hotline for people in crisis or for those who want to help someone else. To speak to a trained listener, call 988.