Colleges struggling with growing demand for mental health services

Students, professionals say help hard to find, in part due to lack of financial commitment

  • Grace Freund, a 21-year-old junior psychology student from Ellicott City, works on counseling materials for new volunteers she is training this semester at the University of Maryland's student-run Help Center, which students can call if they are considering suicide or are in a mental health crisis. Freund said she has recently been "discouraged" by how difficult it can be to get services directly from the university.
Grace Freund, a 21-year-old junior psychology student from… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kevin…)
March 07, 2013|By Kevin Rector, The Baltimore Sun

Within a week of arriving on campus this semester, University of Maryland junior Grace Freund felt the familiar symptoms of a depression creeping up — ones she knew to address quickly, lest they slip from her control.

The 21-year-old psychology major called the counseling center on the College Park campus soon after to set up an appointment. However, she said, her request was rebuffed.

"They said, 'Call back next week. We can't even schedule an intake appointment today,'" said Freund, a graduate of Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City.

Across the state and nation, college students — an age group particularly prone to mental illness — report similar frustration. Campus counseling centers often have insufficient staff and long waiting lists, mental health professionals say. In Maryland, counseling center directors say they are nearly overwhelmed with the ballooning numbers of students requesting services.

Last month, a graduate student at the University of Maryland shot and killed one housemate and wounded another before turning the gun on himself, police say. The family of Dayvon Green told police that he had been treated for a mental illness in the previous year.

Hours after the shooting, Maryland President Wallace D. Loh said the university had increased mental health resources in recent years to address the needs of troubled students.

But students and others at College Park paint a different picture — one of poor access to help and few resources at their fingertips — that appears to be more in line with national trends.

Ninety-two percent of campus counseling centers surveyed last year said the number of students seeking help had increased in recent years, according to the American College Counseling Association. Eighty-eight percent said the increases in demand and in the number of clients with "more serious psychological problems" had "posed staffing problems."

Reasons for increases in demand vary, according to professionals. Awareness of mental health on campuses has grown in recent years. Centers have advertised their services more heavily since campus shootings by troubled students at Virginia Tech and elsewhere.

And more students are also showing up to college already on psychiatric medications.

"In general, there's a little bit of a sea change going on right now in recognizing that overall success in college has a lot to do with a student's mental health and well-being," said Alison Malmon, founder and executive director of Active Minds, a mental health nonprofit that works on college campuses. "But there's not additional money going to mental health on campuses."

At a campus vigil after the shooting at Maryland, Loh followed his comments about increasing resources on campus by saying the shooting presented "lessons to be learned, policy questions to be discussed, changes to be made."

The university has employed part-time, contract counselors in recent years, and had posted a job opening for a new staff psychologist a few weeks before the shooting.

But that position hadn't yet been filled when Loh spoke, and the posting followed years in which full-time staffing at the campus counseling center remained flat.

The number of students seeking help at the counseling center for stress, depression, anxiety or other mental health problems rose from 1,466 during the 2007-2008 school year to 1,986 last year — a 35 percent jump.

During the same period, the number of full-time counselors remained steady at 12.

"One of the things that we're working on is increasing our staffing," said center director Sharon Kirkland-Gordon. "Of course, we have an economy where there were no hires, there were job freezes."

Kirkland-Gordon said students who call or show up at the center with a health emergency can be seen within hours. Others often have to wait up to two weeks for an initial assessment.

The Baltimore Sun asked a spokeswoman for Loh about the apparent contrast between his statement that the university had "significantly increased" its counseling staff and the fact that the full-time staffing had remained flat over several years.

"We continue to assess and meet the needs of our students requiring mental health services," spokeswoman Crystal Brown responded in an e-mail. "We are currently conducting a search to add an additional staff psychologist at the center, which is a direct response to the increased demand we are seeing."

Similar staffing limits challenge campus counseling centers elsewhere in Maryland.

Staffing levels at Towson have remained steady, said Jaime Fenton, director of clinical services at the university's counseling center, with nine psychologists supported by doctoral interns and part-time psychiatrists.

The number of students receiving services has jumped, she said, but not nearly as much as it would if staffing levels weren't limiting the number of appointments that can be scheduled.

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