West Virginia

WV lawmakers focus on allowing guns at WVU, not addressing mental health crisis

Last May, Morgantown lawmakers gathered for scheduled interim committee meetings on the West Virginia University campus.

Logan Riffey, now a senior at WVU, was keen to meet with them to discuss the students’ increased need for mental health services. The students were struggling — both before and after the COVID-19 pandemic — and the year before, three WVU students had killed themselves.

“[Lawmakers] were very receptive to our ideas,” said Riffey. “They showed us that they care about this problem that we brought to them.”

But he said he hasn’t seen a follow-up since.

Despite interim meetings, during which the director of WVU’s on-campus counseling center reported to lawmakers a worrying rise in reported suicide attempts and suicide threats, bills requiring state universities to review the effectiveness of their mental health programs were not delayed.

And now lawmakers are rolling out another bill that some say will make the problem worse: allowing concealed carry in many sections of the state’s public colleges and universities.

“As a psychologist, as a counseling center leader, and as a parent, I am appalled,” said Dr. T. Anne Hawkins, Director of the Carruth Center for Counseling and Psychological Services. “I really don’t think it’s wise to increase access to guns when we have students with depression or anxiety. What we do know is that guns on campus increase the risk of gun violence on our campus.”

Calls for mental health legislation fall on deaf ears

Last January, Riffey felt the legislature go. He supported a bill that would have urged universities to examine the effectiveness of their mental health care programs, develop broader plans for access to care, and have the Higher Education Policy Commission create a funding plan. It was eventually introduced by House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, and House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha.

But even though both Republican and Democratic leaders were on board, the bill never made it to a committee. A consensus resolution calling for an interim legislative committee to study many of the same issues passed the House of Representatives but died in the Senate.

But the momentum continued. In May, the legislature devoted an interim session to the issue. During that meeting, Hawkins told the interim Joint Standing Committee on Education that for the 2021-2022 school year at WVU, the number of reported suicide attempts, the number of suicide threats, and the number of welfare checks for affected students all doubled the number they were right before been COVID.

She urged lawmakers to fund more counselors, including in grades K-12, to better prepare students for life after high school. She requested a comprehensive study of the effectiveness of various mental health programs and their implementation in West Virginia, as well as attention to filling mental health care vacancies in areas lacking services statewide.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Hawkins replied when asked what legislation might be needed. “We need clinicians, we need to look at the national data and come up with something that’s better than just 50-minute hours. It needs to get wider.”

But so far the only bill this year is one similar to last year’s bill; this time Skaff is the sole sponsor and the bill has yet to be reviewed by a committee.

But the campus carry bill is moving. It would allow students to carry concealed weapons on most areas of campus and require schools to keep those weapons safe in dormitories and residential facilities. It passed the Senate last week but has yet to pass the House of Representatives.

Sen. Rupie Phillips, R-Logan, the bill’s lead sponsor, said in an interview that he didn’t see the issue as related to mental health concerns and had been attempting to pass a similar law well before the campus calls for The Mental health funding has increased during the pandemic.

“If someone wanted to do something, hurt themselves or commit mass destruction, they could come over here to Lowe’s and build a potato cannon out of plastic tubes,” Phillips said. “It can cause more mass destruction than a single shot.”

The bill was postponed despite opposition from several state university leaders, particularly citing concerns about the introduction of guns in a college environment where increasing numbers of 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-age adults as a particular concern, as well as studies showing that this age group is more likely to be impulsive than older adults.

In particular, research has repeatedly shown that access to firearms is one of the leading predictors of suicide, and in West Virginia, suicides are responsible 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 dates,” Phillips said.

He added that he believes students likely already have guns on campus. “If you walk into Walmart in Morgantown, I’d almost bet that out of ten people you walk past, six of them probably 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 concerns as one of their top reasons for rejecting the bill.

The Senate changed the bill in response to some motions from Gee and Smith. As it stands, the bill would not allow concealed weapons in on-campus daycares, at spectator events such as soccer games with more than 1,000 visitors, in rooms where student or faculty disciplinary hearings are held, in individual offices, and in mental health care facilities, in all areas of dormitories except common areas and other “safe” buildings. Schools must also provide some form of secure storage for the guns.

WVU expands mental health services without help from Charleston

Azeem Khan, a member of the WVU Student Government Association who helped draft the campus mental health law introduced by Skaff and Hanshaw last year, sees the campus carry law as directly related to the state of students’ mental well-being .

“I think they are very intertwined,” Khan said. “We have so many challenges with mental health. I personally don’t think the campus carry bill would be helpful.”

Like Riffey, Khan has been heavily involved in student efforts to persuade lawmaker and Gov. Jim Justice to address a growing mental health crisis that is being rapidly exacerbated by the pandemic.

Efforts to lobby the governor’s office to help fund psychiatric services in West Virginia’s colleges as the judiciary distributed the last funds of the state’s CARES Act failed.

Still, without the help of the governor or the legislature, WVU has increased student access to mental health services since the pandemic began. To that end, before the start of the 2021 Fall semester, the university introduced a $12 per student mental health fee and received private grants.

The university also spent a small amount — just over $300,000 of $100 million — of its federal COVID relief funds on mental health services such as expanding telemedicine. The bulk of that federal money has gone into directly aiding students, curbing the spread of the virus on campus, expanding virtual options, and offsetting millions of dollars in losses without increasing tuition.

Hawkins’ Carruth Center has increased its consulting staff; The university also launched a telemedicine 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 emergency care and crisis management.

But Khan and other students who continue to advocate for better access to mental health care say there’s still a long way to go. They hope there’s still a chance for lawmakers to go beyond listening and put policy and funding behind a larger mental health effort.

“I think both the legislature and the governor have been 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.”

The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is a helpline for people in crisis or those who want to help someone else. To speak to a trained listener, call 988.

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