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Colleges see growing need for mental health services

A student walks near Royce Hall on the campus of UCLA in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

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At the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, a few dozen incoming freshmen gathered recently for a tour of the Counseling and Psychological Services center. There’s a large waiting area and 50 counseling rooms housed in a brick office building near campus.

“We really want to emphasize the fact that anyone can benefit from this,” said Meeta Kumar, associate director for outreach and prevention. “Twenty percent of undergrads at some point or another come to us.”

That’s almost double the rate 15 years ago. The center has more than doubled its staff during that time, and recently moved to a larger space to accommodate the demand.

Like colleges everywhere, Penn has seen a rise in students dealing with anxiety and depression. In a survey last year, the American College Health Association found that about 20 percent of college students had been diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives, up from 10 percent when the survey started in 2000.

And in the past few years, anxiety has overtaken depression as the top mental health concern, said Micky Sharma, president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors.

“This generation of students, the millennial generation, have grown up in a very fast-paced society with high expectations,” said Sharma, who also directs the counseling service at the Ohio State University. “That, I think, is coupled with our students’ coping skills and ability to be resilient is not as high as we’d like it to be.”

There’s also more awareness of mental health issues, so students are more likely to seek help, experts said, and colleges are taking more responsibility for treating them.

Schools used to refer students off campus for psychological services, said Victor Schwartz, chief medical officer with the Jed Foundation, which works to prevent suicide among college students.

“And now in many schools, the mental health services really function like psychiatric emergency rooms, walk-in clinics, counseling services and kind of full-service mental health care systems,” he said.

That’s expensive. Adding one trained counselor to the staff can cost $70,000 to $85,000, plus benefits.

“But we also know that people who are actively depressed do have lower rates of graduation from college, so there’s really an incentive for the schools to be providing good access to care and good care to their students,” Schwartz said.

Sometimes that means working harder to reach students who may not seek out help, said Terri Wright, executive director of the Steve Fund, which helps colleges improve their mental health services for students of color.

“Stigma is a huge issue in the lives of students of color and what it means to seek services and admit that I need help, when in fact I feel like, as a young person of color, that I’m already being judged differently,” she said.

Which brings us back to that orientation at the University of Pennsylvania. The students are part of a summer bridge program to help prepare low-income and first-generation college students for their first year at Penn. Many are students of color.

“What do you feel might be some concerns that could prevent one from seeking counseling or therapy?” Kumar asked the group.

The students answered: Embarrassment. Judgement. Failure.

Sessions like this are designed to fight that stigma. Counselors are also meeting students where they are, hosting workshops in dorms and dining halls, and trying to shift the marketing pitch away from mental illness.

“We would much rather talk about mental health,” said Bill Alexander, director of the center. “It actually impacts way more students than talking about it from an illness perspective. We want to talk about it from a wellness perspective. “

If you are in crisis, text “START” to 741-741 to reach the Crisis Text LineOr call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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