As more students use campus mental health services than ever before, many people assume that today’s college students are simply less resilient than students of previous generations. But mental health professionals and experts suspect that there are several other factors at play.
For instance, some counselors suggest social media and technology are to blame for the growing demand for mental health services. “You’ve just created a faster pace world for them,” explains Charlene Patterson, the counseling center director at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO). “They’re barraged with constant inquiry, constant response to all kinds of issues.”
Other counselors suggest that some students may not have received adequate exposure to stress and failure growing up, thanks to overinvolved parents. Some students “seem to experience a bit of anxiety and not know what to do with it,” notes Lisa Adams, past president of the American College Counseling Association and current director of counseling at the University of West Georgia (UWG).
But Adams argues that one overlooked reason more students are seeking counseling is that initiatives to expand and destigmatize these services in higher education are actually working.
For instance, shifting social norms have led to increased awareness and have spurred more open conversations about mental health, according to research from EAB‘s Student Affairs Forum. And campaigns to reduce social stigma have led students to feel more comfortable seeking care.
Greater mental health access and information have also allowed students to arrive on campus with pre-existing mental conditions, explains Adams. She adds that 20 years ago, these students wouldn’t have had the proper medication or support to manage their symptoms and attend college.
“Are we seeing an ‘epidemic’ of mental illness racing through the country? Or are we seeing a shift in attitudes, definitions, and the expectation of, availability of, and willingness to seek mental health treatment?” asks Gregg Henriques, director of the combined clinical and school psychology doctoral program at James Madison University (JMU).
Increases in mental health funding have also made it easier for campus counseling centers to deliver services to students and experiment with new counseling tactics, argues Ben Locke, the counseling director at Pennsylvania State University. He references the 2005 Garrett Lee Smith Act, a federally funded suicide prevention program that has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to counseling centers nationwide.
Like other programs, the Garrett Lee Smith Act has three goals: reduce the stigma surrounding mental health treatment, empower people to recognize when they need help, and educate peers to intervene. These three goals “accomplish the same end goal, which is they increase the rate of identification and referral of people at risk,” says Locke. “What we’re seeing in counseling centers is what I believe to be the signs of a successful intervention.”
But regardless of the reason, counseling demand is soaring. At UWG, the number of students seeking counseling services has gone up 52% in two years. Penn State’s Center for College Mental Health, which gathers information from nearly 150 colleges, saw the number of students seeking help for anxiety rise from 18% in 2013-14 to 24% in 2016-17 and the number of students seeking help for depression rise from 15% in 2013-14 to 18% in 2016-17.
In response, many campus counseling centers are experimenting with new tactics to accommodate the rising number of students seeking support. For example, Ohio State University launched an app that lets students schedule appointments with mental health clinicians, do guided breathing exercises, and contact the clinic in case of an emergency. Nebraska Wesleyan University and UNO are implementing lunch sessions to both raise awareness about mental health and provide support and camaraderie for students.
Some colleges are also rolling out resilience programs that teach students to cope with failure and stress. For example, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is working on a program called Big Red Resilience that will train students to help their peers in need.
Other schools, like Hastings College and Creighton University, are promoting the use of emotional support animals (ESAs). In fact, new EAB research suggests that accommodation requests for ESAs is on the rise, with 98% of student affairs leaders interviewed by EAB reporting a slight or significant increase in the number of ESA requests across the past five years.
Still, many campus counseling centers struggle to keep up with student demand. And many colleges lack the funding necessary to hire the number of counselors recommended by the International Association of Counseling Services: one counselor for every 1,000 to 1,500 students.
We’re not seeing a mental health “crisis,” argues David Onestak, the director of JMU’s counseling center. We’re seeing a “new normal.”
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