Magazine article University Business

Sound Mind Sound Student Body: Challenges and Strategies for Managing the Growing Mental Health Crisis on College and University Campuses

Magazine article University Business

Sound Mind Sound Student Body: Challenges and Strategies for Managing the Growing Mental Health Crisis on College and University Campuses

Article excerpt

Before entering college, Nicole, a junior at a small liberal arts college in New England, had been getting treatment for anorexia for two years. Finding a college with adequate mental health services was one of her biggest concerns, so she was relieved when the director of counseling services at the college she selected promised her a full treatment, complete with a weekly dietician meeting and regular sessions with a psychiatrist and a therapist.

"I entered [college] full of hope, but was immediately disenchanted with the counselors," she says, noting that the dietician was in such high demand, she could only see her every three weeks. By the second semester of her freshman year, Nicole had relapsed.

"It was clear that there was no system in place," she says. "The physician did not find my symptoms serious enough, and the psychiatrist had found another job."

Nicole is now seeing a psychiatrist at school who she feels "makes a great effort to meet the medical needs of students on campus." Yet, she is still unsatisfied with the counseling services as a whole, specifically with graduate student interns working in the center who she feels are inexperienced and not equipped to diagnose complex disorders, let alone identify symptoms.

Nicole isn't alone in needing on-campus mental health services. One in four college-aged Americans has a diagnosable mental illness, and severe mental illness is more common among college students than it was a decade ago, according to the American Psychological Association. Meanwhile, state and local funding for higher ed declined by 7 percent, to $81.2 billion, in 2012, and per-student funding dropped to the lowest level in 25 years, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

With an increased demand for counseling services paired with budget restraints, experiences like Nicole's aren't uncommon.

Why the Increase?

Early intervention and a decreased stigma surrounding mental illness are two reasons campus counseling centers are seeing an increased demand.

After the shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University in 2007 and 2008, most institutions began creating behavioral intervention teams--called early intervention teams, care teams, or threat assessment teams, depending on the campus.

"These intervention teams are keeping students from falling through the cracks which is a good thing--but it increases the demands on counseling centers," explains Dan L. Jones, president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors.

"It's kind of like a small town with four-lane highways coming into it. All the traffic is able to get into town, and then there's nowhere for it to go," explains Jones, who serves as director of the Counseling & Psychological Services Center at Appalachian State University (N.C.), as well.

A decrease in the stigma surrounding mental illness is also responsible for the increased services demand, as more students visit counseling centers from self-referrals.

"This generation of students seems more willing to seek counselling," says Jones. "There used to be more stigma to getting counseling, and since the stigma has diminished, that leads to more counseling."

Difficulty Meeting the Need

A 2012 survey by the American College Counseling Association found that more than one-third (37.4 percent) of college students seeking help have severe psychological problems, up from 16 percent in 2000. Of the 293 counseling centers surveyed, more than three-quarters reported more crises requiring immediate response than in the past five years.

Despite the increased need, tight budgets aren't allowing for many counseling staff hires to pick up the slack, with the number of counselors increasing only marginally over the past 20 or 30 years, shares Drew Walther, national chapter director for Active Minds, Inc. …

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