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Colleges, Universities Struggle To Meet Mental Health Needs Of Students

This story was reported as part of our series “Unmet Needs: Living with mental illness in central Illinois.”

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Students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on April 25, 2014.

Students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on April 25, 2014. (Sean Powers/WILL)

Colleges and universities continue to see growing demand for mental health services. But national data published this month shows budgets and staffing levels for most campus counseling centers are not keeping up with that demand.

University of Illinois student Hann Lindahl started to develop her anxiety in high school. It went untreated, and, during her first years of college, the anxiety grew, and so did the binging, and she started “counting calories, tabulating things, pacing around the dining hall kind of waiting alone, waiting for time that could eat alone, making spreadsheets of what I was eating.”

Then, Lindahl hit her breaking point, and she turned to the university’s counseling center for help.

“I somehow expected the desperation that I felt to be matched in quick action by them, and that wasn’t necessarily the case,” she said.

After three sessions, the center gave her a list of recommended psychiatrists in Champaign-Urbana. What followed were several weeks of insurance issues, paperwork and initial appointments.

University counseling centers tend to function more as transfer stations, either helping students to move to a more specialized care provider in the community or to quickly shift back to college life. But if students have an emergency, most college counseling center directors say someone will see them within minutes.

Centers have adapted to this, but, U of I’s counseling center is still limited in the services it can offer.

“By and large, just like most college counseling centers, we are a short-term facility. So we can’t see every student who comes into us long term,” said Carla McCowan, the director of U of I’s counseling center directors.

With tight budgets and limited staffing, university counseling centers are outsourcing students to local health care providers if an issue can’t be resolved in a handful of sessions. At U of I, McCowan said walk-in and emergency appointments have nearly tripled over the last four years.

For many people, mental health conditions and illness develop while they are in college.

Three years ago, anxiety overtook depression as the most common mental health condition or illness that college counseling centers treat. Sandy Colbs, the director of the counseling center at Illinois State University, said not all of the cases of anxiety her center sees require psychiatric care.

“We’re noticing that anxiety is not necessarily a clinical type of anxiety as much as it is students reaching the threshold where they feel that they feel that they need help to cope more quickly than in the past,” Colbs said.

What counseling centers treat, most often, are cases of, say, students stressing out about an exam or weathering a bad break up, which are issues that could still require monitoring. Elizabeth Gong-Guy, president of Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, said these issues can be the first signs of something larger, which could require years of counseling and psychiatric care.

 “More than a quarter, sometimes as much as a third, of students who come to the counseling center have had previous treatment of some kind to address a mental health issue,” Gong-Guy said.

Carly Surprenant, a student at U of I, has been seeing mental health professionals since she was in third grade. Surprenant has high levels of anxiety and depression and she said there are days when she will wake up and feel so depressed that she will lie in bed all day. But a lot of people she knows don’t know this about her, she said, except for maybe her closest friends and family. As she’s told her doctor back home, often, no one even suspects.

“My outside personality is pretty, you know, outgoing, seems fine but inside, it doesn’t match up with that,” she said. “What I want is my inside thoughts to feel confident as I seem on the outside, if that makes sense.”

Because she’s developed a strong relationship with her doctor, she says she doesn’t want to find a closer one at school. So, she’ll call or even text her doctor back home in Chicago if she’s ever feeling overwhelmed, anxious or depressed about virtually anything.

While Carly’s doctor diagnosed her with a mental illness, Gong-Guy said that’s not necessarily the case for the thousands of other college students who seek out services on campus.

“The vast majority of students who come into counseling centers are not mentally ill, but they may have symptoms that are really troubling,” Gong-Guy said.

Adding to the importance of the centers, Gong-Guy said, is that this may be the first time people have access to some form of mental health care. Or this might be the first time students felt like they were away from any kind of stigma at home and could finally seek out help on their own.

That was the case for Lindahl. She feels much better now that she finished her counseling. She had dealt with her anxiety and binge eating on her own for so long that she couldn’t take it anymore and reached out for help.

“I think I was feeling kind of desperate,” she said. “I think I even cried. I don’t want to do this anymore, I need help, and I don’t want my entire college experience to be this.”

As more students who feel this way seek out mental health care on campus, demand grows, and counseling centers will see their resources stretched even thinner.

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