The University of Hawaii wants to beef up mental health services for students, expand a popular scholarship program and start training medical students on Maui to address the doctor shortage.
The proposals are among highlights in the university’s supplemental operating budget request for the 2020-21 fiscal year, approved by the Board of Regents at its meeting Thursday at Kauai Community College. It will be submitted to Gov. David Ige for consideration in the executive budget and also given directly to the Legislature.
The university is seeking $2.6 million to hire 19 psychologists for the 10-campus system and to expand programs that aim to prevent suicide, reduce mental health stigma, raise awareness through peer education and alert new students and parents to the challenges of transitioning to college.
The request comes amid sharply rising rates of psychological problems, including depression and suicidal thoughts, among teens and young adults across the country over the last decade.
Research published in March by the American Psychological Association showed a 71% increase between 2008 and 2017 in the rate of young adults aged 18 to 25 who experienced “serious psychological distress” within the past month. The figure rose to 13.1% from 7.7% in that age group. The problem also grew substantially among youth age 12 to 17, but not among older adults, according to the study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.
UH Manoa currently has eight psychologists, UH Hilo has three, UH West Oahu has 1.75 positions and each community college has one position, according to Allyson Tanouye, who directs the UH Manoa Counseling and Student Development Center and coordinates mental health throughout the UH system.
The new hires would bring the university system in line with recommended mental health staffing levels.
“The national standard is one mental health professional per 1,000 to 1,500 students,” Tanouye said. “If we add the 19 positions we will be up to one per 1,500. That’s how low we are.”
University of Hawaii offers services for students grappling with mental health problems, from major depression and suicidal thoughts to relationship issues that are more typical for college students.
“As the number of and intensity of cases at the top tier has increased, we’ve been forced to do less for that developmental stage on the bottom, who if left untouched or with less resources could rise to higher levels,” Tanouye said. “Having more clinicians is going to be essential.”
“It used to be depression, until maybe five or six years ago, where anxiety has taken over as our No. 1 issue,” she added. “Social anxiety is up there, adjustment transition to college, suicidal thoughts. We do have crisis walk-ins for urgent care.”
Student leaders have been vocal in calling for expanded services, even lobbying at the Legislature.
“Students are really, really pushing mental health,” Tanouye said. “They believe it’s very, very important.”
The UH budget proposal would help address another pressing concern for the state — the shortage of physicians on the neighbor islands.
It calls for hiring eight full-time faculty and staff based on Maui so the UH medical school can create a new pipeline to train doctors on that island. The cost is pegged at $1.4 million, including operating funds. UH anticipates starting with a cohort of about six students the first year, or 24 across the four years.
“It would go from the beginning of medical school all the way through the residency program,” said Vassilis Syrmos, UH vice president for research and innovation. “Hopefully if this is successful, then we can replicate it at Hilo and also use some of the pharmacy facilities there.”
“The shortage of physicians on Maui and the Big Island is extremely severe,” Syrmos added. “Not only the primary care doctors but also specialty positions are pretty much nonexistent on the outer islands.”
The largest single item request in the supplemental budget is for $17.7 million to expand the Hawaii Promise Program to the university’s four-year institutions.
The “last dollar” Promise scholarship, launched in 2016, kicks in after other grants and aid, covering tuition for community college students with demonstrated financial need. That program will continue as it is.
In extending it to the four-year institutions, the university is proposing a different model, a flat amount to cover tuition and fees of Hawaii residents who qualify for need-based federal Pell grants. It is easy to administer and will cost less than a proposal that was not funded by the Legislature last year.
“This is looking to focus on the most needy students going to the four-year campuses,” said Donald Straney, vice president for academic planning and policy. “It would add Hawaii Promise on top of the Pell grants to cover the total tuition costs of students who are receiving those grants.”
The average Pell grant is about $6,000 and full-time tuition at UH Manoa, for example, is more than $11,000 this year.
“The goal is to remove tuition as a barrier for the neediest students,” Straney said. “We give a lot of other financial aid to those students. It will allow them to focus that aid on other costs that they have, such as books, transportation, housing.”
The supplemental budget, which totals about $28 million, covers a variety of other items. They include $1.4 million for 16 new positions to operate and maintain facilities opened at UH West Oahu and the community colleges in recent years. Another $1.2 million would go toward 32 positions to ensure two security officers are on duty around the clock at each community college.
It also seeks $1.2 million for eight positions for educational and cultural programming at Hale Pohaku, also known as the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy; the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station; and ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center.
Another $1 million would be earmarked to employ students as learning assistants, peer tutors, advisers and mentors, to boost student success and retention.
The supplemental budget request comes on top of the university’s annual base budget for its 10-campus system, which is about $1 billion, roughly half of which is funded by the state.