Federman Testifies Before Senate on Need for More College Mental Health Counseling Resources

April 23, 2007 -- One week after the deadly shootings at Virginia Tech, Russ Federman, director of counseling and psychological services at the University of Virginia, testified before a U.S. Senate panel on security on America’s college campuses.

On Monday, April 23, Federman was one of five panelists called before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, chaired by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut.

Other panelists were David Ward, president of the American Council on Education; W. Roger Webb, president of the University of Central Oklahoma; Steven J. Healy, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators and director of public safety at Princeton University; and Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness.

In his testimony, Federman said that colleges and universities and their surrounding communities need more mental health resources and a reduction in the conflicts between FERPA, HIPPA and mental health licensing codes.

Federman noted that there has been a “significant sea change” in university counseling center work during the past 10 to 15 years as several factors, including more effective psychotropic medication and a destigmatization of mental health treatment, have allowed more students with pre-existing psychiatric disorders to enroll in colleges.

“The traditional university counseling center has become a university community mental health center,” he said.

Federman cited data from a 2006 National Survey of Counseling Center Directors which indicated that one in every 11 enrolled students has sought counseling or psychological help in the past year. In addition, the 2006 National College Health Assessment revealed that 94 out of 100 students reported feeling overwhelmed by all they had to do, that 12 out of 100 had an anxiety disorder and that one out of every 11 students reported having seriously considered suicide within the past year.

While counseling centers have received increased resources in the last decade, Federman said “we are not getting ahead of the curve; if anything, we are sliding behind.”

“During peak times of the semester we all are barely able to keep up with the influx
of new students,” he added. “Furthermore, as long as resources are consumed with clinical treatment and  case management, university counseling centers cannot do an adequate job with the preventative work of outreach and education.  Most directors feel they are only scratching the surface with regard to the delivery of truly effective preventative educational services.”

But Federman said the kinds of mental disturbances that yield extreme violence are very rare. “Individuals with this level of disturbance typically experience a degree of impairment that is inconsistent with the requirements of university life,” he said.

Yet, one of the major issues has to do with balancing patient confidentiality and community awareness, in part because of limitations created by the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

“The complex interplay between students’ right to confidentiality, university personnel’s need to communicate, families inclusion in this communication and the inherent conflicts of our health care, educational, and confidentiality policies requires serious consideration and revision,” Federman told the committee.

In particular, Federman told the senators that new funding is essential for student outreach, education and prevention. “We cannot remain in our office providing outpatient treatment,” he said. “We must join the academic community in teaching students about healthy lifestyles which are truly the strongest protective factors against depression and other mental illnesses.”

Federman has been director of counseling and psychological services at U.Va. since the fall of 2000. He had previously been at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. He holds a clinical appointment through the U.Va. Department of Psychiatric Medicine and is on the editorial board of the Journal of College Counseling.

The text of Federman’s opening remarks, along with an archived video of the complete hearing, is available online at: http://hsgac.senate.gov/index.cfm?Fuseaction=Hearings.Detail&HearingID=438