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Colleges are removing hurdles for students seeking counseling

University Business, March 2018
Source: Center for Collegiate Mental Health 2017 Annual Report, tiny.cc/CCMH
Source: Center for Collegiate Mental Health 2017 Annual Report, tiny.cc/CCMH

For the seventh straight year, the rate of students reporting they may harm themselves—and, in turn, who seek counseling—grew, according to a new report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH). The majority of students’ distress can be reduced to manageable levels within two to 10 sessions at campus counseling centers, but many students need longer-term treatment of 20 or more visits.

The report summarizes data covering about 160,000 students and 1.25 million clinical appointments at nearly 150 colleges and universities for the 2016-17 academic year.

Counseling centers struggle to keep pace with this rising demand. Students may therefore face long waits for intake sessions or two- or three-week gaps between appointments. Colleges may also limit the number of sessions.

Institutions contradict themselves when they limit treatment but say they provide a supportive environment to sexual assault survivors and students struggling with sexual or gender identities, says Ben Locke, senior director of counseling and psychological services at Penn State University.

“It doesn’t make sense to have an inflexible, arbitrary session limit,” says Locke, the executive director of CCMH. “You have to factor in the complexity of the situation, the insurance options available to the student and the length of time they might need.”

He recommends taking a public health approach: Provide urgent, rapid assessment and short-term treatment, from which the bulk of students will benefit. Then refer students with more intense needs to a specialized provider.

Other policy and practice supports

Students are more likely to seek support if they don’t need to pay at the time of service, Locke says. He suggests including a mental health charge as an annual fee for all students—parents will see the line item and encourage their children to use available services when needed. Plus, that specific funding bucket helps protect it from getting cut from a larger fund.

Past CCMH reports have highlighted the 30 to 40 percent jump in counseling center utilization.

The Ohio State University offers group counseling sessions to students who don’t require individual treatment, says Micky Sharma, director of the Office of Student Life Counseling and Consultation Services. “No matter what the student comes in with, we have a group that meets their needs,” including LGBT, gender identity, men and women of color, grief, and ADHD, Sharma adds.

Drop-in workshops teach coping skills to help during college and beyond. Because not every student who could use mental health support will seek it, Ohio State offers services in various locations, such as in the law school, the engineering department and the multicultural center.

There’s more stigma around mental health with international students and students of color, Sharma says. So if you want to reach them, “you have to go to where they are.”