Colleges ‘swamped’ by students’ mental health needs, but services vary greatly
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
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