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University campus struggles to meet growing demand for mental health services

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is seeing more demand for mental health services but is struggling to meet that demand.

More of the university’s students are on psychiatric medication and more students are diagnosed with severe issues such as depression and anxiety than in years past.

For most college campuses across the nation, this is now considered “the norm” rather than atypical, Carla McCowan, director of the Counseling Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign said.

Cowan said that years ago counselors dealt with students saying they had problems with roommates or were homesick or having trouble in classes.“
“We still see students that complain of academic difficulty or roommate problems but it is simply that it is rarely their only issue and so many more students have severe presenting issues,” McCowan said now, “Almost everyone comes in talking about severe symptoms of depression, severe problems of anxiety, suicide, suicidal thinking or thoughts.It’s not unusual to see one right after the other, it’s more common,” she said.

 A consortium of journalism and faculty students at Midwest universities found that demand comes at a time that their counseling centers are juggling limited staff and programs on shrinking budgets.
Many fall well short of the recommended number of mental health providers.

The International Association of Counseling Services, an accreditation agency which conducts the counseling center director’s survey, recommends a minimum staffing level of one full-time, professional mental health provider to every 1,000 to 1,500 students.

Yet the average nationwide is one mental health provider to 1,600 students and in the Midwest, the ratios are even higher, often by 25 percent to 30 percent.

At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has one mental health provider for every 2,100 students.

The ratio of mental health providers to students depends on the resources of the college and can vary from one mental health provider for every few hundred students to one mental health provider for every 4,000 students, said Dan Jones, president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors.

“Sometimes counseling centers have to decide which is the least worse because there’s no money,” he said. “There are some things you just can’t address because of the budgets.”

A 2011 National Survey of Counseling Center Directors found:

  • Counseling centers do not have enough counselors per student count to meet the recommended ratio
  • An influx of students with serious psychological problems - including large increases in crisis issues requiring an immediate response and psychiatric medication issues
  • An increase in students arriving on campus already on psychiatric medication
  • One in 10 students sought counseling in the past year
  • Over one in three centers limit the number of counseling sessions allowed

These problems come at a time when the financial state of many colleges and universities have forced changes in counseling services, such as reduction in outreach and prevention programs or longer wait times for appointments.

“The universities are, for the most part, protecting their counseling centers for the health and safety that counseling centers help with health and safety, but without the budgets, there’s not much the can do to increase the staff,” Jones said.

Counseling centers, much like college health centers, are often set-up as a short-term solution and not a long-term care provider.

Psychiatric services are much needed and the cost of seeking help off-campus is prohibitive to many students, even with health insurance, McCowan said.

To cope with the increasing demand, counseling centers often have an increase in wait times for appointments and limit the number of sessions available to students.
Unless it’s an emergency, appointments for services may be a two-to-four-week wait, McCowan said.

As the dollars and resources shrink, counseling centers make the mistake of slicing outreach and prevention programs, Jones said.

Prevention and outreach programs de-stigmatize mental health problems, promote counseling center services and train university staff on how to recognize and interact with troubled students.  

While the incidence of suicide is smaller for college students than for the same group of people ages 17 to 24 off campus, the 2011 survey found that 80 percent of college students who did commit suicide were not clients of their campus counseling centers.

Prevention and outreach programs help reach those students that may not otherwise visit a counseling center, Jones said.

At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, there were 196 suicide incident reports, during the 2010-2011 school year. These reports are of incidents where students made plans for suicide or have talked seriously about suicide. Two years ago, there were 174 suicide incident reports.

Last year, there were 64 actual suicide attempts, according to university data.

McCowan agreed that prevention programs need to be protected and that’s one area the counseling center at the University of Illinois hasn’t cut.

For the 2010-2011 school year, the university’s counseling center served as many students in the office as it did through outreach programs - about 14,400 students, according to data supplied by the counseling center.

Eliminating outreach programs means counseling centers become crisis centers only and neglecting a sector of the student population who really need services.

“All your seeing is people that come to your door and the people that come to your door are not the people who are necessarily your international students or the students who come from your underrepresented and marginalized groups,” McCowan said.

McCowan’s center has trimmed where it can rather than eliminating services and programs altogether.

“At the same time, we simply cannot meet all the demands that are placed upon us,” McCowan said.

“It’s a nick here and a nick there because I can’t cut people really, I can’t cut clinicians,” she said. “It’s more ... length of programs and frequency.”

Reporting by University of Illinois journalism students Mary Beth Versaci, Reema Amin, Taylor Lemick, Lauren Laws and Taylor Smith with project coordinator Pamela Dempsey.

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.