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Two months after eliminating mental health counseling on campus, causing confusion and concern among students, Pennsylvania’s largest community college announced Thursday it had contracted with a Harrisburg-area firm to fill the gap.

HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, said in a statement that its one-year agreement with Mazzitti & Sullivan Counseling Services Inc. will provide students counseling in person, by phone, or by video. As part of the agreement, HACC will pay for students to receive up to three sessions per semester, but will not provide space on any of its five campuses for students to meet the counselors.

Mazzitti & Sullivan, which already provides mental health services for HACC employees, has three offices in the Harrisburg area, but none near HACC’s other campuses in Lancaster, Lebanon, Gettysburg, and York. The closest is 30 minutes away.

The college’s announcement comes after a series of reports by Spotlight PA documented how students have been struggling to get care since the college stopped group and individual mental health counseling in September. HACC made the change without notifying students and before it had finalized arrangements for an alternate counseling provider.

College health experts said eliminating on-campus counseling is risky given the persistent rise in the number of students experiencing depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for that age group, and the demand for campus counseling services has nearly doubled over the past decade. They said referring students off-campus adds another barrier to getting help, and many don’t follow through due to challenges with time, transportation, and insurance.

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HACC president John Sygielski has offered several explanations for cutting campus mental health services, from a $2.7 million budget deficit to a lack of students using counseling and increased demand for virtual services or more flexible office hours.

In a Nov. 4 interview, Sygielski conceded the college hadn’t actually saved any money yet from cutting campus mental health counseling, because the advisers who provided it will be employed through October 2020 to continue offering academic and career counseling. Their positions will then be eliminated.

HACC agreed to pay Mazzitti & Sullivan a $15,000 annual retainer, which will cover the resources to support the program. HACC will also pay $110 per counseling session per student. Students do not need health insurance to participate.

“The college will assess the arrangement after six months and make adjustments if needed to ensure that student needs are being met,” HACC said.

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