Campuses Respond to Student Mental Health Demands

September 2016 | 0 Comments  Average 4.5 out of 5

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Colleges and universities face major challenges in providing mental health services to their 21 million students. As students’ needs have evolved, demand has increased substantially. The number of students seeking counseling services grew nearly 30 percent from 2009-2015, according to Penn State’s latest Center for Collegiate Mental Health report. That’s more than five times the increase in enrollment at the 93 higher education institutions examined in the report.

In response, higher education institutions have added staff and developed new approaches for providing higher quantity—and quality—of help for issues ranging from life skills to suicide prevention.

The JED Foundation, which promotes emotional health and suicide prevention among college students, recommends that colleges and universities create a multidisciplinary team of representatives from all campus constituencies, including senior-level administrators, to address mental health. In the past, the task of ensuring students’ emotional well-being fell primarily to schools’ mental health centers, said Nance Roy, JED’s clinical director. “We need to move … to the notion that these issues are everyone’s responsibility,” Roy said. “Unless you have campuswide involvement and support from the top down, you won’t be able to effect any long-term, systemic change.”

The University of Michigan (UM) and the University of Minnesota (UMN)—which work with JED—and Chapman University are taking steps to stay ahead of the student mental health crisis with an emphasis on campuswide awareness and more efficient approaches to providing care.

Expanding Reach at Michigan

Todd Sevig, director of UM’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), has seen mental health services shift toward positive psychology in recent years. “It’s more wellness oriented—not just treatment of symptoms and illnesses but lets us use students’ strengths to help with the deficits.”

This change also relates to trends in the problems students face. For most of his 26 years with UM’s mental health services, depression was the No.1 concern, but anxiety has taken the top spot. “It’s more than stress, and it seems to increase every year,” he said.

Like most higher education institutions, UM faces the dual challenges of quantity and quality. “We have all seen staggering increases” in requests for services, Sevig said, adding that some weeks have brought increases of 20 percent to 40 percent in student visits. “Any system has to address three parts—the wait for new appointments, ongoing therapy for individuals and groups, and availability for crisis work. Without new resources, it becomes a zero sum game—if you add to one you take away from the other.”

UM has sought to meet quantity demands and maintain quality through an embedded model of care. Now in its third year, the embedded model was inspired by similar programs at Northwestern University and the University of Iowa. The university has counselors at eight schools and colleges, including engineering and law. “It has distributed mental health services in a way that makes the staff local cultural experts,” Sevig said.

UM also is reaching out to different groups, including international students, students of color, and students of all sexual orientations. That diversity is reflected in the staff. “I know that if I can see someone like me, it makes it easier for me to cross the threshold into CAPS,” Sevig said.

He works with university risk management administrators and legal counsel as well as the deans of UM’s 19 schools and colleges. “We want to promote the idea that student mental health is really a campuswide issue.”

Minnesota Rises Above the Noise

For the last 10 years, UMN has taken a public health approach to mental health on campus, said Dr. Gary Christenson, chief medical officer of the university’s Boynton Health Services.

“The historical approach has been to build a brick building and call it health and mental health services and expect it to take care of student needs,” he said. Rather than rely solely on that clinical perspective, the university looks at environmental factors, policies, and self-care efforts that enhance student mental health to emphasize that “everyone has a role to play on campus—faculty, staff, and students as well as mental health staff.”

UMN is using a holistic approach to drive discussion at all levels through a Provost’s Committee on Student Mental Health that includes representatives of 21 key offices, departments, programs, and student organizations. Based on those discussions and student appeals, the university’s mental health clinic and its counseling services have received additional funding for the next two years. The mental health clinic had already increased its staffing by 60 percent over the last four years, and the new funding should help cut wait times for therapy appointments, Christenson said.

The university also conducts extensive outreach programs designed to make all constituencies aware of mental health issues, programs, and resources. They include an orientation week program for new students, emails about ways to reduce stress during exam times, anti-stigma campaigns, and training programs for faculty to help them recognize students in need of help.

Still, Christenson said that with all the other emails, tweets, and messages competing for student attention, he and his colleagues ask, “How do you rise above the noise?” The university has answered with some innovative programs:

  • Cirque du Stress is a one-day circus with performances that reflect life concerns and showcase UMN mental health resources, such as yoga classes and one-course classes on handling stress.
  • PAWS (Pet Away Worry and Stress) enables students to interact with animals, including dogs, cats, rabbits, and chickens. The program tallied more than 10,000 encounters in the 2015-2016 academic year.

Chapman’s Growth Increases Need

In her 37 years at Chapman University, Jeanne Walker, director of Student Psychological Counseling Services, has seen many changes—including a student population increase from 2,000 to 8,000. With that growth comes an increase in demand for services, which has put pressure on staffing, especially during peak demand times around exams and graduation.

Anxiety is the top concern, followed by depression. For example, 71 percent of students who visited Chapman’s center reported anxiety, while 61 percent reported depression. Self-esteem, loneliness, and relationships are other top issues.

“We can’t do as much training and outreach when we are seeing so many students,” she said. To accommodate the demand, Chapman has moved to a short-term counseling model, with 85 percent of students being seen for 10 sessions or fewer. The move has cut down on the wait for appointments with the center’s psychologists, counselors, and counselor interns. Students who need longer-term care receive referrals to mental health professionals in the community.

Counselors now set aside four hours a week for new appointments. “Before they had to be put on waitlists, and that’s not OK,” Walker said. Students can be seen for an initial appointment within one to two weeks, with subsequent sessions every two or three weeks.

The center sees about 700 students per year. That’s about capacity for the center, but Walker said the Chapman chapter of Active Minds, a nationwide network of students who advocate for mental health services and awareness, have presented university administrators with a resolution asking for more staff. “It’s wonderful to have them so involved,” Walker said.

By Donna Davis, a freelance business and education writer


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