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The call for more campus mental health care

Increased treatment for California’s college students worth about $56 million in decreased dropouts
University Business, June 2016
Anxiety has replaced depression as the most common reason students seek counseling on campus. (Photo: Thinkstock.com/Max-kegfire)
Anxiety has replaced depression as the most common reason students seek counseling on campus. (Photo: Thinkstock.com/Max-kegfire)

New research finds mental health treatment of students pays off medically and financially.

With those students now pressing administrators to increase mental health services, some colleges and universities are expanding their counseling staffs and other services.

Increased treatment for students at California’s public institutions will be worth about $56 million in decreased dropouts and higher lifetime earnings, according to a study released in December by the Rand Corporation, a think tank that analyzes public policy.

“You don’t have to be an economist to realize that if you hire a counselor at $50,000 a year and tuition is $60,0000 and you retain one student, that investment has paid for itself,” says Greg Eells, director of counseling and psychological services at Cornell University.

Among the most prominent expansions, The University of California system plans to hire 85 more clinicians across its 10 campuses, while The Ohio State University will add up to 10 new counselors, says Eells, also the past chair of the mental health section of the American College Health Association.

Student pressure is a motivator for expansion of mental health services at some schools. At Skidmore College in New York, students collected signatures and held a small campus protest. President Phil Glotzbach says the school was already in the process of hiring another counselor and establishing a 24-hour hotline for students suffering panic attacks or other non-life-threatening mental health episodes.

“A fifth counselor puts us well over national standards,” Glotzbach says. “But we believe doing exactly what these students have asked for would be counterproductive.”

For instance, Skidmore, which enrolls about 2,400, does not plan to grant the petitioner’s request for round-the-clock counseling for non-life threatening situations in which no one’s life is in danger. An “emergency-like” response to a non-emergency event can actually reinforce or worsen a student’s anxiety, says Julia Routbort, Skidmore’s associate dean of student affairs for health and wellness.

Anxiety has replaced depression as the most common reason students seek counseling on campus. Skidmore, therefore, will also provide more group counseling, plus opportunities to learn relaxation techniques like meditation and yoga.

“We want them to be able to absorb the distress, tolerate it and metabolize it into something that is useful and productive,” says Routbort, a licensed clinical psychologist.

About 50 percent of the college students who seek counseling on campus have been treated before, and around a third already take medication. The demand for counseling has also grown as various groups have reduced the stigma of seeking help for suicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses, Eells says.

Another reason for increasing campus mental health options: When it comes to issues like mental health and sexual assault, higher ed is held to a higher standard of accountability and treatment, Eells says. “We do expect colleges and universities to do things better than we expect from our society as a whole.”

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