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Florida Universities Plead For Mental Health Funding

Sarah Mueller

Florida’s universities say they need more money to hire additional mental health counselors and law enforcement officers. University officials said they’re seeing a dramatic rise in students needing help coping with anxiety, depression and academic stress.

Timothy Jones wasn’t successful when he first started at the University of West Florida. That’s because the Navy veteran was homeless and dealing with being sexually assaulted. But he now has a place to live and will graduate in May because of the counseling he got at UWF.

“None of this would be possible if not for the love and support," he said. "The counseling and Wellness Center assisting me in anchoring my ship and made it possible for me to navigate the rough waters that is college.”

Board of Governors Chairman Tom Kuntz said the university system needs $30 million over two years to hire more than 100 mental health professionals and police officers. Its goal is two officers and one mental health counselor per 1,000 students.

“We must make sure our campuses are meeting the nationally recommended minimum ratios in both areas and that we are providing students with the services to help them graduate and meet their full potentials,” he said.

Carlos Gomez directs Florida State University’s Counseling Center. He said he’s unable to see students for therapy as often as he’d like because the center’s short-staffed. Gomez said students enter college without the resilience and coping skills they need.

“A lot of it is how we’re raising our kids, I think in my opinion," he said. "So, nowadays you’ll see when children are in competition everybody gets a participation prize. There isn’t this built-in learning ability to learn how to kinda cope with failure.”

Gomez said when students fail academically, they can become distressed and suicidal. He said substance abuse is also an issue on college campuses. And they’re seeing more students with a severe mental health and substance abuse problems. Gomez said Tallahassee doesn’t have the community resources that cities like Miami or Tampa do.

“We should be seeing our students who need our services at least once a week," he said. "And so we’re staying away from that because we just simply don’t have the resources. So, at this point it’s just trying to make sure that everybody is safe. And that’s how we’ve been kind of handling it at up to this point.”

Gov. Rick Scott and Senate and House leaders have said they plan to spend more money on mental health in the upcoming budget. The governor is suggesting adding $25 million more for mental health and substance abuse than last year. Sen. Gary Farmer is trying to make sure some of the increase goes to universities.

“And so again, I thank the board for standing up on this issue," he said. "We need to stay loud on this issue, we need to get these chambers to recognize that this is something we have to fund.”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran wants to cut spending by $1 billion next year and has targeted higher education for reductions. Board of Governors Chairman Tom Kuntz said there’s a big difference between the House and Senate’s proposed budgets. But he says he thinks universities will land in a good place.

Note: This has been updated to clarify the request for $30 million in funding is for two years.

Sarah Mueller is a journalist who has worked for media outlets in several states since 2010. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2010 and worked as a print reporter covering local government and politics.