College campuses across the United States have seen an increased demand for mental health counseling centers, but students aren’t necessarily developing more mental problems than they were a decade ago.
Instead, it’s more likely that the boom in campus interventions is a result of greater mental health awareness and prevention efforts.
These are the findings of the 2016 Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) Annual Report, the largest and most comprehensive report on college students seeking mental health treatment to date.
“The results we are seeing are the outcomes we would expect to see from suicide prevention efforts over the last decade,” said Ben Locke, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Pennsylvania State.
“We’ve been asked if students are sicker today, and this doesn’t seem to be supported by the data. Over the last six years, the rate at which students report prior mental health treatment has not increased, but with communities being primed to say ‘that’s a problem, let’s find you help,’ more students are being referred.”
In the last six years, in response to the growing demand, university counseling centers have experienced operational changes. They are providing 28 percent more “rapid-access” service hours per client and 7.6 percent fewer “routine” service hours per client. With more resources going into “rapid-access” services — first-time and emergency appointments — counseling centers’ routine treatment capacities are likely being impacted, especially when funding is low.
“Counseling centers always make sure to provide emergency services in a short time period — that’s our priority,” said Locke, who also directs Pennsylvania State’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Services. Moving forward, he said, counseling centers need to ensure that students who need help — not just those experiencing a crisis — get follow-up treatment in order to heal.
Locke compared the scenario to other forms of health care. “If you have strep throat, and go into a health center, they won’t tell you to come back in two weeks because they’re fully booked,” he said, “and they won’t give you a half prescription; you’ll get a full prescription for the medication you need.”
The findings show that anxiety and depression continue to be the most common presenting concerns for college students as identified by counseling center staff. And while there are increasing numbers of students seeking help who are deemed as a “threat-to-self,” it is still very infrequent to see cases where student’s thoughts or actions are conducive to harming others.
The study data involves 150,483 unique college students who sought mental health treatment; 3,419 clinicians; and more than 1,034,510 appointments from the 2015-16 academic year. This is the eighth year the report has been produced.