Guest Essays, Opinion

Guest essay: Shining a light on mental health

by Azeem Khan and Olivia Dowler

It is discouraging that a recent effort from members of the West Virginia University Student Government Association to engage Gov. Jim Justice on funding for mental health was met with cynicism from the administration. We still hold hope to engage with the governor on this topic because of its importance.

We write today as students at West Virginia University, and as constituents of Gov. Justice, to bring attention to the mental health crisis facing college campuses across the state.

Growing up in West Virginia, we have witnessed the kindness and generosity of its people. It is not just a part of our culture; it is who we are. In times of crisis, West Virginians come together and do everything they can to help friends and neighbors. We help each other because it is the right thing to do and, for us, that is more than enough justification. President Kennedy said it best: “[T]he sun does not always shine in West Virginia, but the people always do.”

It is time once again for us to come together — to address a critical situation on campuses in Morgantown, Shepherdstown, Huntington and elsewhere.

For a variety of reasons, including issues caused by COVID-19, college students are facing unprecedented challenges regarding their mental health. These challenges are not limited to students in West Virginia. Just last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in children’s mental health. Now more than ever, young adults need help and are actively seeking it.

While it is a positive sign that young people aren’t afraid to ask for assistance, they are struggling to access the services they are seeking. Whether it’s the high cost, insufficient insurance coverage or lack of treatment options, their needs aren’t being met. In the spring, this became frighteningly obvious when we lost three of our fellow WVU students to suicide. These were amazing young people who made the world a better place and who had so much more to contribute. This is three lives too many, and we cannot wait for any more to die to begin addressing this issue.

In response to these tragic deaths, as well as the calls for action from our classmates, the Student Government Association at WVU created the Mountaineer Resilience Project. This initiative identified steps needed to help students with their mental health, some of which require financial support.

These steps include efforts to expand telehealth services, expanding the presence of in-person counseling and aggressive efforts to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. A study by the Mayo Clinic found that four out of five college students who consider or attempt suicide have shown clear warning signs prior to the attempt. It is important that students in West Virginia can receive the help they need immediately to prevent a tragedy from occurring.

Knowing that Gov. Justice is sitting on $127 million in CARES Act funding, we’ve sought to engage him on the issue. A fraction of the money that the governor controls would help to fill the gaps that presently exist in the system. Instead of waiting for the federal government to take the lead, why can’t West Virginia be first in finding new solutions to the mental health crisis?

President Kennedy was correct when he described the quality of West Virginians. However, if we don’t take the crisis seriously and do everything in our power to help our fellow Mountaineers, we will continue to lose our state’s best and brightest.

We have asked to speak with Gov. Justice to discuss ways to help our classmates, neighbors and friends. Thus far, our request has not been answered. Nonetheless, we remain hopeful that the governor will take the time out of his busy schedule to meet with us so that together we can save lives and keep the light shining upon the people of West Virginia.

Azeem Khan and Olivia Dowler are both senators in the WVU Student Government Association.