Increased Demand for Campus Mental Health Services Reveals Growing Awareness, Need for More Resources
Posted By Donna Fuscaldo on May 16, 2016 at 11:14 am
Mental health awareness month was instituted sixty-seven years ago to shine a light on a problem that even then affected untold numbers of Americans. Today, a steadily growing number of those people are college students, some of who are no longer suffering in silence. Thanks to a push by activists, foundations and student groups, mental illness is steadily getting destigmatized and more students are feeling empowered to speak up about their experiences.
Having more students speak up about their mental health and seek help when needed means that many mental health offices at colleges and universities around the country are feeling the increased pressures, with many being required some to increase staff and others being forced to come up with alternative ways to treat students. “Over the next ten years, you will continue to see an increase in staff sizes,” says Keith J. Anderson, staff psychologist and outreach coordinator at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “If we don’t keep up with it, eventually we are going to start to see fewer people get the services they need.”
While depression and anxiety are among the most common mental illnesses found on college campuses, there are also students attending school with previous mental health issues that can impact their ability to learn and graduate. What’s more, research by the JED Foundation shows that minority students are underusing mental health services. Better serving these groups will further increase the demand for campus mental health services.
Schools boosting staff, getting creative to handle influx
Recognizing the increased demand, some colleges and universities have been increasing their staff while others with tighter budgets are relying on other methods to make sure they can meet the demand. According to Anderson, some are limiting the number of sessions a student is entitled to per year while others are adopting a triage model where a case manager handles the initial meeting and then assigns the student to staff, based on the severity of the problem.
Others are focused on building resilience in students so they can better handle the minor stresses that could lead to a visit to a campus mental health services office. “As a society, we place such high expectations on higher education to do things we don’t expect society to do,” says Gregory T. Eells, associate director of Gannett Health Services and director of counseling & psychological services at Cornell University.
The increased awareness about mental illness is costing schools more money, but research is showing that it’s an investment worth covering, with benefits for graduation rates and for society at large. According to a Rand Corporation study of California’s public university and community college students released in December, there was a 13 percent increase in students seeking treatment for mental health issues in the final year of California Mental Health Services Authority or CalMHSA’s investment in prevention and early invention programs.
Rand predicted that the increase in the number of students receiving treatment will translate into an additional 329 students graduating because they got help with their mental health problems. The estimated societal benefit for California is $6.49 for every dollar invested at the university level. For community college students, it’s $11.39 for each dollar invested, assuming the increase in students being treated is solely due to CalMHSA’s investment.
More needs to be done to increase awareness
More students seeking help is good news for those committed to building more awareness around mental health. After all, it means more students are willing to speak up, which is positive news for organizations working to promote emotional health and prevent suicide among college and university students. The JED Foundation runs a nationwide campus program designed to give schools the framework and tools to address mental illness and awareness. Some key areas of the Jed Campus Program include involving senior leadership in teams that assess and implement improvements in addressing mental illness, using in-depth surveys when programs are first created, and then reevaluating three years later to determine what is working and where there’s room for improvement.
Active Minds, a national student group with chapters around the country, is taking its mental health awareness message directly to the students. One of its major efforts is the Send Silence Packing campaign, a traveling exhibition of 1,100 donated backpacks, which represent the number of students who commit suicide each year. The backpacks are displayed in high trafficked areas on college campuses to spread awareness about suicide prevention. The group also holds events throughout the year focusing on topics like eating disorders and stress, among others.
“For a long time mental health issues in the U.S. didn’t get the attention they deserved,” says Eells. “There’s been a lot of effort around destigmatization.” The increased demands on campus mental health services reveal that awareness is spreading, yet there’s work still to be done to ensure that college students have access to the services.