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Higher ed not keeping up with demand for mental health services


Colleges and universities continue to see growing demand for mental health services. But national data published this month shows budgets and staffing levels for most campus counseling centers aren’t keeping up with that demand. Illinois Public Radio’s Ryan Weber reports on the effect it’s having on students in the final story of our series, “Unmet Needs: Living with Mental Illness in Central Illinois.”  

University of Illinois student Hann Lindahl started to develop her anxiety in high school. It went untreated, and, during her first years of college, the anxiety grew, and so did the binging, and she started...

“counting calories, tabulating things, pacing around the dining hall kind of waiting alone, waiting for time that could eat alone, making spreadsheets of what I was eating,” says Lindahl.

Then, Lindahl hit her breaking point, and she turned to the university’s counseling center for help.

“I somehow expected the desperation that I felt to be matched in quick action by them, and that wasn’t necessarily the case,” says Lindahl.

After three sessions, the center gave her a list of recommended psychiatrists in Champaign-Urbana. What followed were several weeks of insurance issues, paperwork and initial appointments.

University counseling centers tend to function more as transfer stations, either helping students to move to a more specialized care provider in the community or to quickly shift back to college life. But if students have an emergency, most college counseling center directors say someone will see them within minutes. Centers have adapted to this, but, still, U of I’s counseling center is limited in the services it can offer. Carla McCowan is the director of the center.

“By and large, just like most college counseling centers, we are a short-term facility. So we can’t see every student who comes into us long term,” says McCowan.

With tight budgets and limited staffing, university counseling centers are outsourcing students to local health care providers if an issue can’t be resolved in a handful of sessions. At U of I, McCowan says walk-in and emergency appointments have nearly tripled over the last four years.

For many people, mental health conditions and illness develop while they’re in college. Three years ago, anxiety overtook depression as the most common mental health condition or illness that college counseling centers treat. Sandy Colbs, the director of the counseling center at Illinois State University, says not all of the cases of anxiety her center sees require psychiatric care.

“We’re noticing that anxiety is not necessarily a clinical type of anxiety as much as it is students reaching the threshold where they feel that they feel that they need help to cope more quickly than in the past,” says Colbs.

What counseling centers treat, most often, are cases of, say, students stressing out about an exam or weathering a bad break up, which are issues that could still require monitoring. Elizabeth Gong-Guy, president of Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, says these issues can be the first signs of something larger, which could require years of counseling and psychiatric care.

“More than a quarter, sometimes as much as a third, of students who come to the counseling center have had previous treatment of some kind to address a mental health issue,” says Gong-Guy.

Carly Surprenant, a student at U of I, has been seeing mental health professionals since she was in third grade. She has high levels of anxiety and depression and says there are days when she’ll wake up and feel so depressed that she’ll lie in bed all day. But a lot of people she knows don’t know this about her, she says, except for maybe her closest friends and family. And as she’s told her doctor back home, often, no one even suspects.

“My outside personality is pretty, you know, outgoing, seems fine but inside, it doesn’t match up with that. What I want is my inside thoughts to feel confident as I seem on the outside, if that makes sense,” says Surprenant.

Because she’s developed a strong relationship with her doctor, she says she doesn’t want to find a closer one at school. So, she’ll call or even text her doctor back home in Chicago if she’s ever feeling overwhelmed, anxious or depressed about virtually anything.

While Carly’s doctor diagnosed her with a mental illness, Gong-Guy says that’s not necessarily the case for the thousands of other college students who seek out services on campus.

“The vast majority of students who come into counseling centers are not mentally ill, but they may have symptoms that are really troubling,” says Gong-Guy.

Adding to the importance of the centers, Gong-Guy says, is that this may be the first time people have access to some form of mental health care. Or this might be the first time students felt like they were away from any kind of stigma at home and could finally seek out help on their own.

And that was the case for Lindahl. She feels much better now that she’s finished her counseling. She’d dealt with her anxiety and binge eating on her own for so long before that, she couldn’t take it anymore and reached out for help.

“I mean I think at the time I was kind of feeling desperate. I think I even cried. I don’t want to do this anymore, I need help, and I don’t want my entire college experience to be this,” says Lindahl.

And as more students who feel this way seek out mental health care on campus, demand grows, and counseling centers will see their resources stretched even thinner.