Spurred by the state Board of Governors, Florida universities will hire 56 mental-health professionals this year and a total of 105 over the next four years.
The Board of Governors, which oversees the university system, has been advocating for more mental-health spending from the Legislature over the last two years, with data showing more students need the services and that many students face serious psychological challenges, including stress, anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide.
A March report showed 24,700 students used counseling and psychological services at the 12 universities during the 2015-2016 academic year, a 20 percent increase over the prior year. That was a 55 percent increase since the 2008-2009 academic year.
The report also showed that all but four schools exceeded the minimum staffing level of one counselor for every 1,000 to 1,500 students recommended by the International Association of Counseling Services.
Board of Governors leaders pushed for a specific mental-health appropriation for state universities during the 2017 legislative session. But lawmakers rejected earmarking funds for counseling services, saying the universities could hire more counselors out of a significant overall funding increase approved for 2017-2018.
After the session, Tom Kuntz, chairman of the Board of Governors, met with university presidents and asked them to come up with mental-health plans for their campuses, which the schools presented Thursday to the board during a meeting at the University of Central Florida.
Norman Tripp, one of the board members who lobbied for the mental health initiative, said universities will increase on-campus psychologists, counselors, case managers and health and wellness coaches. He said schools would reallocate funding in their budgets to pay for the expansion.
Tripp noted studies have shown that students who use counseling services are more likely to do better than their peers who don't use the services when it comes to staying in school and graduating.
But he also said the recent death of a fraternity pledge at Florida State University after an off-campus party underscored the need for providing students with guidance.
“It really is a broader problem that is including alcohol, drugs in combination with those already dealing with mental-health issues,” Tripp said. “It's a bigger problem that we're going to have to address and we'll stay on top of it.”
FSU, which had one counselor for every 1,908 students last year, plans to hire 23 new counselors over the next four years, including six counselors this year, according to the board presentation. It will have a total of 38 on-campus counselors when the expansion plan is completed.
The University of Florida, which had one counselor for every 1,660 students last year, plans to hire 12 mental-health counselors over the next three years, with four hired this year.
The University of South Florida, which had 2,044 students for every counselor, plans to hire five counselors this year along with three health and wellness coaches, a mental-health outreach specialist and a health social-marketing specialist.
USF will expand counseling hours and implement a “coordinated care management system,” while hiring a case manager.
Board of Governors members said they were pleased by the response from the universities.
“I would like to thank all the presidents for stepping up,” Edward Morton said. “I think it's a critical need.”
In addition to the mental health initiatives, the universities reported that they are also improving public-safety programs, including hiring 79 additional police officers over the next five years, including 22 new hires this year.
Ned Lautenbach, chairman of the Board of Governors' budget and finance committee, said schools will also improve campus safety through other initiatives including more security cameras, training, metal detectors, ballistic shields and improved communication systems.
“These are important initiatives,” Lautenbach said.