Students walk to and from class on the Evansdale campus of West Virginia University. (WVU Photo/Jennifer Shephard)

Last May, lawmakers gathered in Morgantown for scheduled interim committee meetings on West Virginia University’s campus. 

Logan Riffey, now a senior at WVU, was keen to meet with them to discuss students’ increased need for mental health services. Students had been struggling — both before and in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic — and the year before, three WVU students had killed themselves. 

“[Lawmakers] were very open to hearing our ideas,” Riffey said. “They showed us that they cared about this issue that we brought to them.”

But he said he’s seen no follow-up since then.

Despite the interim meetings, where lawmakers were told by the director of WVU’s on-campus counseling center of disturbing increases in reported suicide attempts and suicide threats, bills to require state universities to study the efficacy of their mental health care programs haven’t moved. 

And now, lawmakers are advancing another bill that some say will make the problem even worse: allowing concealed carry weapons in many areas of the state’s public colleges and universities. 

“As a psychologist, as the director of the counseling center, and as a parent, I’m horrified,” said Dr. T. Anne Hawkins, director of the Carruth Center for Counseling and Psychological Services. “I really believe that when we have students who have depression, students who have anxiety, I’m not sure that increasing their access to weapons is wise. What we know is that having guns on campus increases the risk of gun violence on our campus.”

Calls for mental health legislation fall on deaf ears

Last January, Riffey felt momentum going into the legislative session. He was advocating for a bill that would have pushed universities to study the efficacy of their mental health care programs, develop more comprehensive care access plans and have the Higher Education Policy Commission come up with a funding plan. It was ultimately introduced by House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, and House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha. 

But in spite of having both the Republican and Democratic leaders on board, the bill never came up before a committee. A concurring resolution asking a legislative interim committee to study many of the same issues passed the House, but died in the Senate.

But still, the momentum continued. In May, lawmakers dedicated an interim meeting to the subject. During that meeting, Hawkins told the interim Joint Standing Committee on Education that in the 2021-2022 school year at WVU, the number of reported suicide attempts, the number of suicide threats and the number of welfare checks on students of concern were all double what they had been right before COVID.  

She asked lawmakers to fund more counselors, including in grades K-12, to better prepare students for life after high school. She asked for a major study of the efficacy of various mental health programs, and how to implement them in West Virginia, as well as attention to filling mental health care vacancies in areas that lack the services around the state. 

“That’s the million dollar question,” Hawkins said in response to a question about what legislation might be required. “We’ve gotta have clinicians, we’ve gotta look at the national data, and we’ve gotta come up with something that’s better than simply 50-minute hours. It has to be broader.”

But so far this year, the only bill in response is one similar to last year’s bill; this time, Skaff is the only sponsor and the bill has yet to be considered by a committee. 

Yet the campus carry bill is moving. It would allow students to carry concealed weapons on most areas of campus, and require schools to provide secure storage of those weapons in dorms and residential facilities. It passed the Senate last week, but still has to pass the House.

Sen. Rupie Phillips, R-Logan, the bill’s lead sponsor, said in an interview that he does not see the issue as connected to concerns about mental health, and has been trying to get a similar law passed since well before the calls for campus mental health funding increased during the pandemic.

“If somebody wanted to do something, hurt themselves or mass destruction, they could go up here to Lowe’s and make a potato gun out of plastic pipe,” Phillips said. “It can cause more mass destruction than a single shot can.”

The bill moved in spite of opposition from multiple state university leaders, specifically citing concerns about introducing guns into a college environment where an increasing number of students are experiencing mental health crises, and where there’s been a recorded increase in suicides and suicide attempts. Plus, Hawkins cited the prevalence of alcohol and drugs among college-aged adults as a specific concern, as well as studies that have shown this age group is more likely to be impulsive than older adults. 

Notably, research has repeatedly shown that access to firearms is one of the leading predictors of suicide, and in West Virginia suicides account for a majority of firearms deaths.

Phillips said that he doesn’t believe data linking gun access to suicide.

“I can write anything down and call it data,” Phillips said. 

He added that he believes students likely already have guns on campus. “If you walk into Walmart in Morgantown, I’d almost bet you that every 10 people you walk by, probably six of them’s got a gun. That’s my data.”

In a letter sent to lawmakers by WVU President Gordon Gee and Marshall University President Brad Smith, the administrators cited mental health concerns as one of their primary reasons for opposing the bill.

The Senate did amend the bill in response to some of Gee and Smith’s requests. As it stands, the bill would not allow concealed weapons in on-campus day care facilities, at spectator events like football games with attendance of more than 1,000, in rooms where student or faculty disciplinary hearings are held, individual offices, in mental health care facilities, in all areas of dorms except for common areas, and other “secure” buildings. Schools will also have to provide some type of secure storage for the weapons.

WVU increases mental health services without help from Charleston 

Azeem Khan, a WVU Student Government Association member who helped author the campus mental health bill introduced by Skaff and Hanshaw last year, sees the campus carry bill as directly related to the state of students’ mental well-being.

“I think that they’re very much intertwined,” Khan said. “We’ve got so many challenges with mental health. In my personal opinion, I don’t think the campus carry bill would be helpful.”

Like Riffey, Khan has been deeply involved in student efforts to push lawmakers and Gov. Jim Justice to address a growing mental health crisis being rapidly exacerbated by the pandemic. 

Efforts to lobby the Governor’s office to help fund mental health services at West Virginia colleges as Justice was doling out the last of the state’s CARES Act funds failed.

Still, without the aid of the Governor or Legislature, WVU has increased student access to mental health services since the start of the pandemic. To do so, the university instituted a $12 mental health service fee per student before the beginning of the fall 2021 semester, and received private grant funding. 

The university also spent a small amount — just over $300,000 of $100 million — of its federal COVID relief funds on mental health services like expanding telehealth care. The majority of that federal money went to direct aid for students, stemming the spread of the virus on campus, expanding virtual options and making up for millions in losses without raising tuition.

Hawkins’ Carruth Center has increased its counseling staff; the university also began a telehealth counseling service and the school opened the “Healthy Minds University,” an initiative to provide students long-term mental health services, whereas the Carruth Center focuses on urgent care and crisis management.

But Khan and other students who continued to lobby for increased access to mental health care say there’s still a long way to go. They hope there’s still a chance for lawmakers to go beyond listening, and put policy and funding behind a larger mental health effort. 

“I think that legislators, as well as the Governor, have been receptive to our ideas, but I think at times they don’t see our priorities,” said Avery Conner, another member of the WVU Student Government Association. “There’s always more to do.”

The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a trained listener, call 988.

Ian Karbal is a Report for America corps member, and the state government watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.