Campus Counseling Centers Expand Focus
University counseling centers nationwide have reported an increase over the past few years in the number of students coming in for services. Their focus has also expanded from addressing problems adjusting to college life to also dealing with more complex and severe mental health issues. Marie Aho (Counseling and Consultation Services) elaborated on the shift in a recent presentation to the NMU Board of Trustees.
“Traditionally, students sought campus-based counseling services for issues associated with the new college environment, living with strangers, stress related to academic or financial demands, developmental and separation concerns and relationship conflicts or breakups. But now we’re seeing more students come to campus with clinical depression or serious mental illnesses (SMIs) such as bipolar disorder. An estimated 25 percent are taking psychoactive medications. Others are struggling with negative coping such as cutting or eating disorders. It’s not clear if troubled students make up an increasing proportion of the campus population or if more are seeking help because of outreach efforts and rising awareness of mental health needs. Most of what we’re seeing here is in line with the national trends.”
NMU’s center does not charge students for its confidential services. It provided 2,940 individual counseling sessions to nearly 600 people last year, an increase of 6 percent. The number of mandated assessments requested by the Dean of Students Office for self-destructive behavior and the requests for same-day emergency appointments are up as well. The center also offers group therapy and provides consultations for faculty, staff, parents and the community.
Aho said most counseling centers lack the resources to handle the growing workload. Some ration care, limiting the number of sessions available to students over the course of their college careers. “That’s not the way we work,” she said of NMU. Still, Aho said she and her staff of three full-time clinicians anticipate a waiting list to develop early each semester.
“There were 178 students on the waiting list last year,” said Aho. “We got them all in, but the average wait was about eight business days. This year, it’s 11 business days. That worries me. When they’re on the waiting list, we screen for obvious risk factors and triage them through a rating system based on severity. We do the best we can, but it’s inexact. We also reserve two openings per day for possible crisis appointments.”
Aho shared with the board how NMU counselors rated the severity of intake concerns last year. About 36 percent were considered severe, 51 percent moderate and the remaining 12 percent mild or situational.
The Associated Press has reported that in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy, administrators are proactively encouraging students to get help, looking more aggressively for signs of trouble and urging faculty to speak up when they have concerns. Aho said these changes, along with the “Oprah effect” that has reduced the stigma of seeking professional help, have combined to send more students to campus counselors. She describes it as both a welcome development and a challenge.
“It would be nice to move ourselves from serving essentially as a MASH unit of counseling to focusing on wellness and prevention,” she added. “That would fulfill our complete role. But we haven’t been able to do that as much as we’d like because we’re so busy. We try to fit in some outreach, specifically targeting new students through UN100 and other classes. We also do a workshop with housing and residence life RAs and RDs to get the word out that we’re here as a resource, regardless of whether students are at risk.”
The NMU center, located at 3405 Hedgcock, is accredited by the International Association of Counseling Services. Aho said it promotes a holistic approach, drawing on each individual’s strengths and resiliencies.