Collegiate Mental Health Services Fail to Make the Grade

By Jack O’ Dwyer

Image: “Mental Health” |  Flickr

Image: “Mental Health” | Flickr

In the middle of the night, on the dimly-lit back road that worms its way from behind campus directly onto the highway, the flashing lights of the local hospital’s designated ambulance shine like a dragon’s fire. A student walks with her hood up to hide her face in the center of three university safety officers. In the distance, those just returning home stand and watch as she steps into the back of the vehicle with a hastily packed overnight bag. She returns to campus only to move home two weeks later.                                     

Such is the state of mental health in higher education across the United States. Students are finding themselves with nowhere to go but the local emergency psychological ward to avert long-coming crises.

“The whole point is that they just want you to not be sobbing and once you’re not sobbing, they don’t really care.” said one university junior. She had tried to seek help from her school’s counseling center during a crisis and was greeted with what she refers to as “less than helpful” aid.

“I walked into the Counseling Center sobbing profusely, but there was no one at the desk and no doors were open so I sobbed louder until someone came out,” She said.

When someone eventually came to find her, she was squeezed into an appointment during walk-in hours. She described the session as “word-vomiting and at someone who nods and smiles” and provides no useful feedback. Due to the nature of her appointment, she was counseled by an unsupervised intern—a common occurrence at her school.

My university’s Counseling Center is made up of five full-time staff members—three of whom are licensed social work counselors—and anywhere between 10-12 interns who rotate out yearly. This potentially forces students to go through an intake process more than once with what some would consider total strangers. As anyone would tell you, starting over with a new therapist is a daunting experience. Rehashing old experiences can be painful or just plain exhausting for some.

The actual offices could only fill two classrooms with around half a dozen individual rooms for private sessions. It is open between 8:30am-4:30pm during which one-time emergency walk-in appointments may be scheduled, if available.

When matched with an appropriate counselor, students have nothing but positive things to say. Why wouldn’t they? According to a survey done by the American Psychological Association, 65 percent of individuals who find themselves at their university’s counseling services say that the help that they received helped them stay in school and 64 percent even reported academic improvement.

“I have had a really great experience with my intern. She is funny and she gets me, and she is really helping me dig into the deeper stuff at the root of the surface emotions,” said one senior, who is quite familiar with the counseling process, “It has been a pleasure working with her.”

Unfortunately, getting to this point can be difficult. Students often report being unable to get appointments—needing to mark themselves as “urgent”, if they can, in order to be seen at all. Wait times can be a month long without that extra flag.

What happens when someone needs help sooner than the queue is moving? For some, it means they go without care and without the potential aid or accommodations they would need to do well. The difference between what could be life-altering treatment and struggling academically is how promptly you hand your paperwork in.

“I wish it wasn’t practically a competition to get mental health services,” she said.

According to one academic resource officer, the offices desperately want to help support their students in any way they can and are devastated with the way the system is working. Nearly 94 percent of campus counseling service directors have reported client increases that coincide with national trends.

There is a big push to shift the focus onto supporting students mentally. Like many others, this officer agrees that good mental health and mental health care are the bedrock for a healthy academic career. She wishes that soon we will be able to see that mental health is just as important as physical health.

“A lot of the time, we’re like ‘this student really needs to see someone, please’,” she said, “There’s not enough counselors. In higher education, nationally, students need more support, but just aren’t getting it. There’s just not enough to meet the needs of students.”

She’s right. According to the Penn State’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health, students are overwhelmingly having issues with anxiety, stress management, and depression. Counseling centers nationwide have seen a 30 percent increase in appointment requests. However, while most universities offer psychological services, nearly 25 percent of campuses don’t have enough resources available.

The biggest concern is anxiety at 61 percent, followed closely by depression at 49 percent. Of the total population involved in the study, 63 percent identified themselves as women. 7 percent identified as bisexual—the largest of any portion of the LGBT+ community reported. Counseling was attended mostly by undergraduate juniors, seniors, and first year graduate students. Most clients had never gone to counseling before.

So, what’s to blame? She says it’s the budget.

“We don’t have the amount of funding to support the staff that we need.” She said, “There’s this myth that professionals make do with what they have. It’s not realistic. We can’t do it.”

There should be, at the very least, one counselor to every 1,000-1,500 students. This already doesn’t seem feasible, but for some larger universities that ratio jumps to one counselor per 3,000+ students. You’d think it wouldn’t be so hard to hire a few more counselors, especially at a university whose president made $1.7 million last year yet has the second unhappiest student population in the US.

Here’s hoping that the administrations have better luck balancing their budgets soon.


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