Faced with students’ surging need for mental health care services, officials at local colleges are finding ways to do more with limited resources.
A report released last week by the Associated Press determined that since 2014, the number of students getting mental health treatment at 39 surveyed public universities had spiked by 35%. Enrollment grew just 5% in that time.
No local schools were included in the study.
“We have had a steady increase, for sure,” said Tabitha Bartelme, a full-time therapist at University of Dubuque. “We definitely have seen an increase of students just reaching out for help. Not all of them end up following through. Some of them just want to test the waters, so to speak.”
The report also found that the number of counselors at each public university increased from an average of 16 to 19 over the five-year period. Even with the rise, it’s still a relative dearth of professionals, which can lead to longer wait times at a critical moment in students’ lives.
So counselors such as Clarke University’s Lorie Murphy do what they can to shoulder the workload.
“We just keep trying to take on more and more people, but maybe see them less frequently,” she said.
A GROWING NEED
Part of the recent surge in demand for mental health services can be attributed to a decline in stigma, according to Bartelme. As public awareness and knowledge of brain health issues increases, so, too, does acceptance.
“They can use the words,” Bartelme said of her students. “They know the words ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety.’ They’re not scared of them. They all know somebody who has taken medication before, have a family member who is on medication.”
The Associated Press report identifies other potential sources of the increased demand.
Disorders that once prevented students from attending college no longer are seen as insurmountable barriers. Social-media-linked anxiety appears to be a legitimate and significant stressor. And fear of shootings and violence also could be playing a role.
For example, University of Nevada-Las Vegas saw an increase in demand following a 2017 shooting at a nearby country music festival that left 58 dead.
Students at Northeast Iowa Community College in Peosta, Iowa, often face a host of issues to which those attending four-year universities are less frequently exposed, according to Chris Woodson, the school’s dean of student development.
“We do have students who are working full time, going to school full time, parenting,” she said. “Those do all add to the level of stress or anxiety.”
Murphy has seen a dramatic increase in the demand for services over the past 20 years. But Clarke doesn’t have the resources of bigger schools, so a commensurate staffing increase is out of the question.
“A lot of the smaller schools don’t have giant budgets to be able to hire a bunch more staff,” she said.
Still, there are options to help meet students’ needs as effectively as possible. For example, the school now has a program through which second-year graduate students studying social work help out with mental health services.
Murphy also hopes to make sure all aspects of university life are working to ensure that students are aware of available resources.
“How can we partner with athletic teams, in the classrooms and residence life, and bringing more of kind of the educational pieces out there (to students)?” Murphy said.
She also has begun finding new ways to reach wide swaths of students. For example, she began offering a popular pet therapy program through which faculty members and staffers bring their dogs and cats to campus to make new friends.
Clarke now offers students opportunities to learn about meditation, explore yoga and fight holiday- induced stress. Murphy even has offered light therapy, a way to help students get more Vitamin D.
Early detection and education are keys to mitigating brewing mental health crises.
Wellness and resource fairs are held occasionally at NICC. And faculty are trained via a 16-hour course designed to make laypeople as supportive as possible.
“Our college has invested in providing that training to our faculty and staff for about six or seven years now,” Woodson said. “We want to make sure our faculty and staff are able to support students in crisis.”
The University of Dubuque also offers training to staffers.
“We also have done a lot of education on our campus with our faculty and staff to recognize when there are some brain health, mental health concerns,” Bartelme said. “We have a lot of our faculty and staff bringing students (to counselors’ attention).”
UD is also investing in a new student wellness center.
“We are hoping that we can get a provider in there that is comfortable prescribing psychotropic medication,” she said. “That way our students don’t have to go off campus and wait for weeks or even months to get in.”