HACC

HACC's Lancaster campus.

THE ISSUE

In September, HACC — with campuses in Lancaster, Harrisburg, York, Lebanon and Gettysburg — told its counselors to stop providing individual and group mental health counseling, which had been a free service for students. “Instead, students with mental health needs would be sent to a dean of student affairs, who would refer them to an off-campus provider,” Spotlight PA’s Aneri Pattani reported for a follow-up article on this issue that also appeared in the Friday, Nov. 1, LNP. But since this news first became public in mid-October, HACC students have been protesting and calling for the services to be reinstated, Pattani reports.

The students are right. And HACC administrators should listen.

When it was revealed last month, through the dogged reporting of Spotlight PA’s Pattani, that on-campus mental health counseling had been eliminated for HACC’s more than 17,000 enrolled students, the LNP Editorial Board expressed its strong concern. (Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer. Its partners include LNP and The Caucus, an LNP Media Group watchdog publication, as well as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, PennLive/Harrisburg Patriot-News and PA Post.)

We wrote that “on-campus mental health counseling is right for both students and colleges, (and) it is indeed ‘short-sighted’ to stop offering counseling when providing such services can help with recruitment and retention of students.”

We appealed to pragmatism and to HACC’s need to position itself as a community college working to reverse its own falling enrollment totals amidst a national downturn in the number of young people seeking postsecondary education.

Now, HACC’s students are making their own appeal.

“Are they serious?” 19-year-old Sabrina Herb told Spotlight PA during a recent sit-in at HACC’s Harrisburg campus. “There is no benefit to taking away mental health services. I’m going to let them know I’m standing my ground to say these services need to be here.”

“These services are essential to the well-being of students and if HACC isn’t providing that, then the school isn’t doing its job to care for students,” added 20-year-old Will Trinh.

And 22-year-old Kelsey Thomas — who told Spotlight PA that she was so angry upon hearing about the elimination of services that she cried — said flatly that the college isn’t “listening to those who are asking for help.”

We hope HACC is listening now.

And that it understands this is a reversible decision. The infrastructure that was in place mere weeks ago can be reinstituted. Budgetary funds can be moved around, if necessary.

HACC President John Sygielski has said, however, that the college is in discussions with a third party to provide clinical services at low or no cost. No further details on how that might work are known, but we’re dubious that such an arrangement can provide the same level and convenience of service as on-campus counselors.

Plus, as we previously noted, sending students off campus for counseling can be an unnecessary obstacle to getting help. Many students don’t follow through on such referrals, experts say. And time, transportation and money can all be hurdles in trying to go off the campus.

Herb, the 19-year-old student, told Pattani that she has no car and already takes two buses and walks a mile to get to the Harrisburg campus. She has a comfort level with the HACC counselors she had been seeing.

There are other big concerns. “College mental health experts said eliminating on-campus counseling is risky given the persistent rise in the number of students experiencing depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts,” Pattani noted. “Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for that age group, and the demand for campus counseling services has nearly doubled over the past decade.”

Also of note: Many community college students are uninsured or underinsured. Spotlight PA cited a 2016 statistic that 13.5% of those students have no insurance. Even with insurance, copays can start at $20 per session.

Eliminating campus mental health services goes against the philosophy of a 2018 school safety report released by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and Gov. Tom Wolf, Spotlight PA notes. That report called for an increase in access to mental health services within the state’s K-12 schools, and DePasquale said college students face similar needs. As we stated last month, college is a big life step for our young adults. Many students are also juggling jobs, families, and/or caring for older relatives, and so it can be a time of high stress and vulnerability. It’s important to have a professional available to talk to. And “it’s important (students) don’t have to jump through hoops to get services,” DePasquale said.

We agree.

HACC had a good system in place.

We understand these are difficult economic times for Pennsylvania’s largest community college system — its debt service has grown by 38% since 2016, Pattani reported. But, still, we strongly urge HACC to reconsider its September decision and return to offering free, on-campus mental health counseling.

But don’t just listen to us, HACC.

Listen to your most important customers — your students.