How College Students Can Find Mental Health Services on Campus

Evelyn Wallace was just 3 years old when she was mauled at the playground by a pit bull, a trauma that has led to crippling bouts of “life dread” in situations that make her feel insecure. Experiences, for example, like adjusting to freshman year at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor — and a housing situation that wasn’t ideal for her.

Wallace says that she and her roommate barely spoke, and that she eventually felt so uncomfortable in her room that she rarely spent time there. Thinking about returning to school after spring break filled her with apprehension.

But she did return, and then found the help she needed to finish out the year — and stay. The therapist Wallace began seeing every other week at Michigan’s Counseling and Psychological Services center helped her discuss her daily struggles and begin to cope better.

Then, sophomore year, she discovered the Wolverine Support Network, a student-led organization launched in 2014 that aims to address and promote mental health and well-being by engaging peers from across campus in small, diverse discussion groups.

“I’ve found a place on campus where people not only know my whole story, but are looking out for me and empowering me to pursue what I really care about, while at the same time helping me feel appreciated even on the days when I have difficulty getting myself to class,” Wallace says.

[Read: 3 Ways Students With Mental Illness Can Prepare for College.]

As at Michigan, colleges and universities across the country are ramping up their services for undergrads in distress — and there’s increasing demand. A 2017 survey by the American College Health Association revealed that about 61 percent of students had experienced “overwhelming anxiety” within the previous year, up from 51 percent in 2011.

According to Pennsylvania State University–University Park‘s Center for Collegiate Mental Health, campus counseling centers saw an average 30 percent jump in the number of students seeking help between 2009 and 2015. During that same period, the total number of students enrolled rose by about 5 percent.

A 2017 analysis by the center found that roughly half of students who sought counseling in the previous year had some symptoms of depression. Anxiety concerns had affected 62 percent. More than one-third of those seeking help had contemplated suicide at some point in their lifetime.

Micky Sharma, director of the Office of Student Life Counseling and Consultation Service at Ohio State University–Columbus, thinks the numbers can be partly explained by the fact that many students who previously would not have attended college are now doing so, thanks to better treatments. In addition, he speculates, “this generation’s constant connection to technology may be inhibiting their coping and problem-solving skills.”

One priority has been to make access to crisis care easier and quicker while handling noncritical and long-term needs as expeditiously as possible or making referrals.

At Ohio State, phone triage screening gets students who call for help a roughly 15-minute conversation with a counselor within a day to determine how quickly they need to be seen by either a campus therapist or an outside referral. Students who call up in crisis after hours can connect to ProtoCall, a phone counseling service operating all day every day.

Those in crisis at the University of Southern California, who account for about half of the more than 2,000 students seen each year, are helped immediately during and after hours by crisis counselors and are provided care until they’re stable. Those not in acute need can wait up to four weeks during busy times for an appointment at the counseling center or be referred to someone in the community.

At Michigan and the University of Texas–Austin, counselors have been embedded across campus. “This model incorporates the best of both worlds — a coherent centralized approach to student mental health on a large campus with localized delivery and expertise,” says Todd Sevig, director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Michigan, which can now be accessed in 12 of the university’s schools and colleges. Staff members get to know the culture of the school, the professors and the issues that are of concern to those specific students.

Hamilton College in New York is exploring an initiative that will connect students in need of counseling with online psychologists and psychiatrists. Students at Penn State can tap web-based tools that help them determine whether they’re anxious or depressed and try an online five- or six-week treatment module using cognitive behavioral therapy before opting for counseling. The school’s 24-hour crisis line provides immediate access to support.

USC’s new Office of Campus Wellness and Crisis Intervention offers a mindfulness program and is developing what will be a required course for first-year students focused on flourishing, healthy relationships, emotional intelligence, self-care and lifestyle design.

At Duke University in North Carolina, support services include groups to help students build relationships and resilience and regulate emotions. Carleton College in Minnesota runs expressive arts therapy groups to help undergrads with depression and anxiety get in touch with their feelings and bond through drawing, painting, writing and discussion.

Twenty-eight peer groups meet regularly every week for an entire semester at Michigan. Student facilitators are trained in how to ask open-ended questions and guide group discussions on topics like recognizing and coping with depression and understanding eating disorders.

[Read: Cope With Mental Health Issues as a Community College Student.]

Sam Orley, a 2018 graduate and former executive director of Michigan’s Wolverine Support Network, who was inspired to become involved with mental illness initiatives following his brother’s suicide, believes that students are the most potent source of influence on other students. He notes that the WSN model is now being replicated at the University of Cincinnati and Michigan State University, with 30 other colleges showing interest in adopting it.

At Ohio State, drop-in workshops led by campus clinicians are available to students every day on subjects ranging from how to set realistic goals to how to beat anxiety. As at many colleges, yoga and mindfulness sessions are ongoing, and the school offers 30 options for group therapy.

In some cases, wellness topics are even being addressed in class. At UT–Austin, a curriculum expert works with faculty across campus to figure out ways to acknowledge the importance of student well-being by beginning class with a mindfulness exercise or promoting group activities and closer social connections. In the first year of a three-year grant, some early successes include stronger ties between faculty and students, says Chris Brownson, director of the Counseling and Mental Health Center.

Because entering college is such a big transition, prospective students and parents should know what to expect from health services on and off campus. For those who have been receiving ongoing care, it’s important to know what long-term services are available. Schools in large cities may have mental health support readily available nearby for when the limit on college counseling is reached or when a more specialized therapy is needed.

Parents also need to understand that while they might like to be in the loop and able to speak with their child’s mental health providers, these professionals are legally and ethically bound to uphold confidentiality and cannot give out information to anybody without a student’s permission. Exceptions may be made only if a student is a threat to himself or others or if the protection of children and minors makes it necessary. In other circumstances, students must sign a consent form to allow such communication.

[Read: What Mental Health Needs Should Parents Consider When Sending a Child to College.]

Most college counseling centers welcome requests from families about their services and advise against assuming that every school can meet every mental health need.

It’s best not to “make assumptions about what might be available,” cautions Ben Locke, senior director for Counseling and Psychological Services at Penn State and the founding director of the university’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health. “And everyone needs to understand the difference between mental health challenges that can be worked on, what can be done to feel well in the world, and what is beyond the scope” of a college counseling program.

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News “Best Colleges 2019” guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.

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