Bill Would Curb Campus Mental Health Aid

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), February 26, 2005 | Go to article overview

Bill Would Curb Campus Mental Health Aid


Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard

A bill that would put limits on the way colleges and universities assist students with mental health problems is drawing opposition from counselors, who call it overbroad and unnecessary.

If approved, the legislation would bar most counselors from recommending that a student consider using medications such as Prozac that affect mood or behavior. It is aimed at ensuring that students with mental health problems are not pressured into taking drugs as a condition of remaining in school.

But counselors at the University of Oregon and other state institutions object to the bill's language, which they believe unnecessarily intrudes on treatment by limiting what counselors can discuss with patients. They also say it will prevent students from getting needed help and deprive schools of the authority to decide when students should go on a mental health leave and when they are able to return.

Robin Holmes, director of the UO Counseling and Testing Center, called the bill an answer in search of a problem. She said no one has ever raised concerns about students being pushed to take medication for mental health problems - in Oregon or any other state - and said the training and ethics requirements of counseling staff ensure that students get appropriate care.

"We're very confused as to why this particular piece of legislation is being introduced," she said. "You're having a bill decide how we should interact with students, when by practice we already have all the things we need to make sure we're interacting with a student in an ethical way. There's no need for legislation to do what we already do."

The bill, Senate Bill 561, was introduced by Sen. Bill Morrisette, D-Springfield. Morrisette said he filed the bill at the request of Jim Whittenburg, a former pharmacist who has struggled with mental illness himself and advocates against the overuse of drugs such as Ritalin to treat behavior problems in children.

Morrisette sponsored a bill approved in the 2003 session that prohibits staff in K-12 schools from recommending that parents consider Ritalin for their children. That bill also was written at Whittenburg's request and was meant to ensure that only medical professionals diagnose and treat behavior problems.

Morrisette said SB 561 stems from a similar concern and is meant to ensure that students receive due process in decisions affecting their health and enrollment.

"I think this is to the benefit of the university as well as the student, just to make sure that there's no misunderstanding of how people behave in those situations," he said. "All this is just to clarify the procedure and that's it."

Under the bill, only a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist would be allowed to recommend the use of a mood- or behavior-altering medication. Colleges would retain the right to require students to take a leave of absence if they present a danger to themselves or others, but they would have to offer treatment first and would lose the ability to decide when a student is ready to return to campus.

Holmes said that could be a problem with a student in crisis who needs to be placed on leave immediately for his own safety. And a student would have to be allowed back when a psychiatrist or psychologist determines the student is no longer a threat, even if the college doesn't believe he's ready to handle campus life.

The legislation would apply to all schools in the Oregon University System, all community colleges and Oregon Health & Science University. …

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