UConn's Counseling and Mental Health Services is located in the Arjona Building on the Storrs campus. Judah Shingleton / The Daily Campus
Trinity College in Hartford has seen an uptick in demand for counseling services in recent years.

At Connecticut College, almost a third of students get mental health services in a given year and half of all students get that help at some point before they graduate. At Trinity College, close to half of the student body comes into the counseling center in a given year.

By contrast, at Manchester Community College, very few mental health services are available.

“There’s a very large discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots in our state,” said Janet Spoltore, director of student counseling and health services at Connecticut College.

Spoltore is a member of the legislative task force charged with making recommendations on the prevention and treatment of mental health ailments on college and university campuses in the state.

“There’s a very large discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots in our state.”

Janet Spoltore
Connecticut College

The task force, which met recently for the first time, will identify gaps in mental health services on campuses and submit recommendations to the legislature’s higher education committee by early February.

Joseph DiChristina, dean of campus life and vice president for student affairs at Trinity College, said the task force will be looking at whether there is a “baseline” that could be recommended to colleges in terms of services and prevention.

It was clear from the first meeting of the group, which includes representatives from the state’s public and private institutions as well as clinicians from the community, that not only do services vary significantly from campus to campus, but demand for those services has gone way up in recent years.

UConn’s Counseling and Mental Health Services on the Storrs campus. The Daily Campus newspaper recently editorialized about the need for more funding for CMHS, writing that: “Students have decried the department’s staffing shortages and long wait times, and justifiably so — adequate mental health services are difficult enough to provide and obtain without such issues.”

DiChristina said a decade ago about a quarter of Trinity students would obtain mental health services during a typical year, compared to almost twice that now at 45%. At Quinnipiac University, the percentage of students getting mental health services was up 42% this fall, compared to last fall.

“You talk to any of the private colleges or the state [universities] right at this particular moment, they are absolutely swamped in terms of seeing students,” said Spoltore. “We typically see students every other week. There’s no way to see students weekly, just no way, and we have well-staffed colleges.”

Nicholas Pinkerton, director of university counseling services at Southern Connecticut State University, said, “There’s no single issue that’s bigger or more important to address than this issue of rising demand and how to meet that demand.

“I think everyone is invested in trying to support out students. The reality is what we provide students is time. Forty-five to fifty minutes of undivided personal time is something that is very difficult to scale, so the question is how many staff do you need to facilitate that?”

Pinkerton said he thinks this is partly because of the outreach that SCSU and other colleges do even before students arrive freshman year to inform them about available services, but also because of  “generational trends” that have led to students being “more willing to talk about their concerns.”

“There’s no single issue that’s bigger or more important to address than this issue of rising demand and how to meet that demand.”

Nicholas Pinkerton
Southern CT State University

Joseph Navarra, who coordinates services for students with disabilities at Manchester Community College, said the community colleges, in contrast, offer very little in the way of mental health services.

“Most of the community colleges don’t have clinical support on their campuses,” he said. He’s been talking to local community health agencies about having a clinician on campus a couple of times a week.

“That would be a game changer for us but still, compared to the amount of students who need support, it’s a drop in the bucket,” Navarra said.

Navarra said that every year faculty identify students who appear to be suffering or troubled, but there is little on campus to help them. If a student is in crisis, however, he said several staff members will respond and will call 911 or a mobile crisis team if needed.

The academic quad at Southern CT State University in New Haven. The school provides information to students about mental health services before they begin freshman year.

“It would be great if we had something more comprehensive on campus,” Navarra said. “I see it also as a retention issue. It’s no secret that community colleges don’t do great at retention. Oftentimes, it’s not the academics, it’s the other stuff going on in students’ complicated lives and so if we can address mental health needs, not only will they feel better but they’ll perform better in school.”

DiChristina said he thinks the demand for services has gone up partly because students are getting mental health treatment before they graduate high school, so there’s an expectation that this will continue in college.

Spoltore said it’s important to not make an assumption that the increased number of students seeking help means there is more mental illness among students.

“There’s a lot of literature to suggest that anxiety and depression are increasing,” she said. “The other issues and diagnoses stay pretty stable, including high risk behaviors. What’s driving these numbers to the demand that we now have is the result of a lot of good work at the universities and colleges in providing prevention and outreach, so that people know when to refer people over, screening so that students recognize that they need to come in.”

Nicholas Pinkerton, director of university counseling services at Southern Connecticut State University, and Kerry Patton, director of counseling services at Quinnipiac University

Pinkerton drew a distinction between mental health and mental illness, saying that “more and more students are getting the message that taking care of your mental health is important and they are reaching out for support.”

Task force members also talked about the possibility of reaching out to community mental health agencies to treat students, but Spoltore said it isn’t easy to find that help.

“There aren’t too many accepting clients quickly, so that if I try to find psychiatrist with a certain specialization, there are none that have any openings,” she said. “There are none that take anybody. There’s just not enough service out there.”

Pinkerton said he’s found the biggest obstacles in referring students out to community  services are transportation, insurance and convenience.

“The reality is the number of students who are given a warm send-off to a community provider who actually then follow through and continue with that provider are very, very low,” Pinkerton said, “and so the reality is that the counseling centers are in a position where we have to define our scope of practice. We have to be realistic about what we can provide and what we can’t.”

If a student needs help beyond what the counseling center can provide, Pinkerton said, “then we need to help out, [but] as the saying goes ‘you can lead a horse to water.’ It becomes a real challenge.”

Kathleen Megan wrote for more than three decades for the Hartford Courant, covering education in recent years and winning many regional and national awards. She is now covering education and child welfare issues for the Mirror.

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8 Comments

  1. I believe the struggle to access care is a national issue that goes far beyond the college student. We have a crisis in this country; an elephant in the room and the funding to help a population of people who’s actions have sparked national debate has been a trickle to say the least. As Americans living in a country where some have great wealth and options of choice for healthcare, we have a moral obligation to help those who are in need and a duty to break down the stigma of accessing those services.

  2. There is an opportunity for UConn Health, Trinity Health Network and Hartford Healthcare to provide mental and behavioral health services on the college campus and off site accommodations. The health networks can provide assessment and treatment, see patients in real time, access patient insurance and payments, etc. hospital networks are more equipped to provide the confidential service than a campus health service center.

  3. Oh please. When every time anyone “feels” pressure, or stress, or anything at all, they now require “treatment”. Nothing has changed since college students went to college in the 40’s – 90’s, when there wasn’t a “mental health epidemic” — its all part of the continuing striving for victimhood that has overtaken society.

    Why were there no mental health epidemics when soldiers from WWII came back from the death and carnage of a war that claimed 70-85 million dead? Somehow those men and women managed to get through college without teams of psychologists.

      1. Point well taken. However, the world is not perfect. Nor are humans. Suicide after witnessing friends, colleagues being killed in front of you is in no way comparable to having hurt feelings at a $75,000 year college.

      2. You assume that because someone goes to an expensive college they’ve had no trauma or reason to be depressed. First, much depression is physiological. Second, at a private university I attended for grad school, I knew two undergrads in one year who had lost both parents and were orphans at 18. I knew people who had lost siblings to suicide. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

      3. This is a result of being pandered to. Public colleges as well now have “therapy dogs” brought in during finals.

        The horror of having to suffer through four or five tests.

  4. Perhaps the discussion should be about the parenting strategies that leave these people unprepared for college.

    How many times have the parents “taken care of things” rather than letting their children figure out how to confront and overcome adversity?

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