Need for behavioral health services on college campuses growing

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Our nation’s college campuses are experiencing a surge in demand for mental health services. About 1 in 10 incoming freshmen reports feeling depressed frequentlyExternal Web Site Policy.  The 2015 Annual Report for the Center for Collegiate Mental Health states that the use of college counseling centers grew by 30 percentExternal Web Site Policy, even though enrollment only increased by 5 percent. In addition, students’ concerns are increasingly complex.  The percentage of students visiting college counseling centers who have a serious mental illness nearly tripledExternal Web Site Policy between 2000 and 2010. Among counseling center clientsExternal Web Site Policy, about 1 in 3 has contemplated suicide, and 1 in 10 has made an attempt.

Unfortunately, campus counseling centers are struggling to meet demand. A recent survey of colleges and universitiesExternal Web Site Policy conducted by the health news website STAT reveals:

  • Most institutions have only one counselor for every 400-1,500 students.
  • Wait times for a counseling appointment range from 1-4 weeks at most schools, and some schools limit the number of annual visits a student can make per year.

The counseling center directors interviewed for the article placed responsibility on a lack of resources, but the consequences of failure to invest in students’ mental health can be devastating. I know firsthand.  When I was a student, I had suicidal thoughts. But when I went to the counseling center, they told me to come back in a month, when they had an opening. I was lucky to eventually find the support I needed to thrive.

Others are not so fortunate. The STAT article recounts the story of Constance, a young woman who attempted suicide after waiting nearly 2 weeks for a counseling appointment.  Large numbers of students don’t even bother trying to get help.  A survey by the National Alliance on Mental IllnessExternal Web Site Policy revealed that about half of students with behavioral disorders who drop out of college did not receive behavioral health services.

We can do better, and we must do better.  SAMHSA is helping colleges and universities do more. A big part of the solution is for institutions to devote more resources to counseling centers.  Our programs benefit counseling centers and help promote campus-wide prevention and support efforts in the following ways:

  • Garrett Lee Smith Campus Suicide Prevention Grants to colleges and universities bring together counseling centers, academic departments and student organizations. The grants support behavioral health services as well as training for faculty, staff, students and families on suicide prevention and mental health promotion.
  • SAMHSA helps fund the Transitions Research and Training CenterExternal Web Site Policy, which assists college administrators, faculty, and staff in their efforts to help students with behavioral health issues succeed academically.
  • We fund Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation’s Campus Resource ProjectExternal Web Site Policy, which seeks to improve online resources for students with behavioral health issues, as well as the center’s development of the Higher Education Support Toolkit: Assisting Students with Psychiatric DisabilitiesExternal Web Site Policy. Designed for college behavioral health professionals and administrators, the toolkit covers both behavioral health services and academic supports.

SAMHSA also supports new approaches to supporting college students’ recovery from mental and substance use disorders. Our Bringing Recovery Supports to Scale Technical Assistance Center Strategy has been working closely, with behavioral health professionals, education experts and youth leaders to promote Collegiate Recovery ProgramsExternal Web Site Policy.

The 21st Century Cures Act, passed in December 2016, includes several provisions that address campus behavioral health.  It authorizes grants to train students, family, faculty and staff. It also calls for the establishment of an Interagency Working Group on College Mental Health and a public-private public-education campaign on college campuses.

We know prevention works, treatment is effective and people recover. It’s especially important to support college and university students. Many are vulnerable, but they are just getting ready to unlock their potential. The 21st Century Cures Act means SAMHSA will be doing even more to promote campus behavioral health.

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

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