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Amy Dalrymple, Forum News Service, Published April 05 2010

Board addresses student health needs

When three Dickinson (N.D.) State University softball players died in a tragic accident last fall, counselors from the region descended on the campus to volunteer their services.

But after a few days, the volunteers went back to their regular jobs, and the university didn’t have a licensed counselor on staff to assist the grieving students.

“For some students, some of the shock set in quite a bit later,” said Stacie Varnson, director of the academic success center. “It would have been nice if we had an in-house counselor to help with that situation.”

A proposal that’s part of the State Board of Higher Education’s 2011-13 budget request would begin to address student health needs on campuses across the state.

Chancellor Bill Goetz is proposing to spend $715,400 to add a full-time licensed mental health counselor to the campuses that don’t have one.

North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota have mental health counselors on staff, so the proposal would primarily affect the other campuses in the system.

The proposal also includes $12,000 to contract with a service that would provide after-hours mental health services and $156,000 in one-time spending for training related to mental health.

“This takes a first step in a badly needed area, in terms of a priority on our campuses,” Goetz said during a meeting last week.

The board will vote on the proposal this week.

In Moorhead, Minnesota State University Moorhead, Concordia College and Minnesota State Community and Technical College offer free counseling services to students.

A 2007 survey of Moorhead college students showed that one-fourth to one-third of students have been diagnosed with a mental health condition in their lifetime.

College professionals say depression and anxiety are the main reasons students seek counseling.

At NDSU, more than 800 different students have used the counseling center so far this year, up 12 percent over this time last year, said Bill Burns, director of the counseling center.

The NDSU center has six counselors and two psychologists on staff, plus a visiting psychiatrist who is available two days a month.

A task force that studied the mental health needs of the North Dakota University System recommends that each campus have at least one full-time licensed mental health counselor.

The task force also made several other recommendations, including having a psychiatrist on campus at least once a month, providing after-hours emergency services, collecting data on the mental health of students and ongoing training.

Not all of the recommendations are addressed in the budget proposal.

At Dickinson State, students are referred to counselors at the Regional Human Services Center, which is located on campus.

But campus officials have been advocating for a counselor on staff for about two years, Varnson said.

The Dickinson State tragedy last fall, when three softball players died after their sport utility vehicle plunged into a pond in the dark, highlighted the need, Varnson said.

Even though they had counseling available immediately after the incident, some softball players needed assistance this spring when they went back to practice without their three teammates, she said.

Aside from that incident, the campus needs a counselor to assist students who are away from home for the first time and encountering new stresses they’re not prepared for, Varnson said.

“It’s an awful lot coming at them at once,” she said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Amy Dalrymple at (701) 241-5590