Takeaways of the AP Study on Mental Health in Colleges

campus counselingFollowing an era of de-stigmatization and amid rising rates of mental illness, more college or university students are turning to their schools to seek help with anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns, according to a recent study conducted by the Associated Press. The study, which surveyed over three-dozen public universities, found that many students must wait weeks for treatment or seek help elsewhere as campus clinics struggle to meet demand. For many campuses, the number of students seeking help has doubled over the last five years, despite enrollment remaining relatively stagnant. Students are responding to the long-wait times with protests and petitions, while campus mental health counselors must identify innovative strategies to deal with increased workloads and avoid burnout amid a worker shortage. 

AP requested five years of data from the largest public universities in each state. In response, 39 universities provided the publication with statistics from the counseling or health center, while 11 more told them that complete records were unavailable, or that they had not created records in over 5 months. Data showed that many universities were working on increased access to services, but most are struggling to meet rising demand. Since 2014, the number of students receiving mental health treatment has grown by 35%; in comparison, enrollment only increased by 5%, as per AP. By 2018, nearly 1 in 10 students was seeking mental health treatment, but the number of available counselors did not increase on average, with most colleges or universities managing an average of 16 to 19 employees. 

Related Blog: The Growing Trends in College Mental Health Statistics

For a small college, 16 to 19 would be a robust mental health team, but on a large university campus the average counselor-to-student ratio averages out to 1 counselor for every 4,000 students, and few of the universities  surveyed even met that benchmark. Every university has a responsibility to address campus mental health, and the survey should persuade university officials, as well as state and local legislators, to prioritize counseling clinic resources and innovative alternative solutions in an annual budget. 

Key Points From the Mental Health Study 

The AP Study on mental health on campus should encourage safety managers to evaluate services available on campus. Data can provide a roadmap to the college mental health epidemic, from adding more counselors to on-campus clinics to investing group therapy or peer intervention training for students. 

  • Data demonstrates a rise in depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses on campus - often brought on by external pressure such as living independently for the first time or financial burden of tuition - but the number of students seeking care might also be brought on by a decrease in stigma. Efforts to open up candid conversations about mental illness and encourage those in need to seek help have made a difference in campus culture. 
  • For most universities, students contemplating suicide or otherwise in crisis are granted help right away. If not, students are directed to schedule an appointment, and the wait can range from hours to months, depending on the time of year and design of the clinic. Many schools included in the AP survey provided data suggesting on average an initial campus counseling appointment took weeks to book. 
  • Several schools adopted an alternative model to provide same-day screenings for students who ask for help. While the approach may help better assess a student’s situation or identify those in crisis, a follow-up appointment will still often be scheduled weeks or months out. For some students, waiting is not a major deal, but for others, it may potentially allow for issues to worsen. 
  • Students on university campuses across the United States are calling for change with protests and petitions - on one campus, students staged a campaign called “30 Days Too Late” in response to the university’s average wait time of 30 days. In response, the school raised awareness about same-day screenings and consultations, as well as hired more counselors. 
  • Counseling centers have opted for new, innovative solutions to help meet the need for mental health struggles, including offering more short-term treatment options. More students are being recommended to group therapy, anxiety workshops, stress-relieving events during finals, such as therapy-dog meetups, or offered yoga. Counseling centers also often offer workshops to help students counsel each other.
  • Finding budget for additional counselors can be a challenge for many public college or university campuses. Many campus clinics do not charge students for care and don’t have additional revenue. In 2016, a bill proposed additional funding or grants for public college or university counseling centers, but it never advanced to a vote. 

The AP Study's Implications On The College Mental Health Epidemic

Research shows that mental illness is approximately 10% more common among college students than it was 10 years ago, with depression and anxiety among the most reported concerns, according to a study conducted by the American Psychological Association. One in three college freshmen report having a major mental disorder, according to a study conducted by the Journal of Abnormal Psychology in September of 2018. Statistics also show that people are most vulnerable to a mental health crisis during their college years, as many psychiatric illnesses, such as substance abuse, major depression, and anxiety, first show symptoms between the ages of 14 and 25, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. The statistics amount to a mental health epidemic, and it’s not a surprise campus counseling centers are struggling to keep pace with the amount of students seeking care. 

Related Blog: What Role Does Campus Safety Play in Mental Health on College  Campuses?

The outcomes of the AP Study can help college or university safety teams better understand how to tackle the mental health counselor shortage on campus. It may seem counter-intuitive, but raising awareness about mental health resources on campus is essential to providing faster, more reliable care to students. Throughout the AP Study, major universities cited frustration that students were unaware of the same-day evaluation service, or other wellness offering on campus. Also, for students who are able to seek help off-campus, providing a guide to nearby counseling centers can be a valuable service as well. Many students travel a long distance to their college or university and are living independent from their parent or guardian for the first time, so may be unaware of how to reach out for care. 

By implementing a campus safety app, college or university officials can keep students better informed of the resources available. The app centralizes critical resources regarding mental health and counseling services for students in an easily accessible directory. Directory resources can help students access vital information, including phone-numbers for the health or wellness center, counseling clinic, campus safety, or another relevant campus department. During a mental health crisis, students can also connect with campus safety or 9-1-1 with the push of a button, enabling responders to locate the student quickly and help them seek the appropriate care.

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Mary Kate McGrath
Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.

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