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More stress, less stigma drives college students to mental health services

September 2, 2015 at 6:15 PM EST
Rates of anxiety and depression among college students in the U.S. have soared in the past decade. In response, schools are trying to figure out the right course of treatment, counseling and intervention. Hari Sreenivasan speaks to Micky Sharma, director of the counseling and consultation service at Ohio State University, and Jennifer Ruark of The Chronicle of Higher Education about how schools are handling the situation.
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GWEN IFILL: As students head back to campus, colleges and universities across the country are facing a growing demand for mental health care.

Schools have long provided counseling, but, increasingly, colleges are facing new dilemmas about how to best treat a student, especially one at risk.

Hari Sreenivasan is in our New York studios with the story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In fact, rates of anxiety and depression among college students in the U.S. have soared in the past decade. There’s more awareness of problems, risks and diagnoses, and combined with the stresses of college life, schools are trying to figure out the right course of treatment, counseling and intervention.

The Chronicle of Higher Educatio examined this in a new series about what it calls an epidemic of anguish.

Jennifer Ruark is the editor of the series, which has been in the works for 10 months. And Micky Sharma joins us. He is director of the Association for the University and College Counseling Center. He’s director of the Office of Student Life Counseling at Ohio State.

So, Jennifer, I want to start with you. Your reporters spent a long time on this series. What did you all find?

JENNIFER RUARK, The Chronicle of Higher Education: Well, we found that colleges are seeing an increase in the number of students who report to counseling centers with anxiety disorders, with clinical depression.

And they’re also seeing more incidents of serious situations that need immediate intervention.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Micky Sharma, I’m watching, and I’m thinking about this and saying, well, listen, haven’t the stresses of moving away from home, perhaps the big breakup with the girlfriend or boyfriend or partner, bombing a test when you get there, hasn’t that been around for decades, as long as college has been around?

What is so different about the student population now?

MICKY SHARMA, Ohio State University: Well, I think there’s many things that have caused some of these changes that Jennifer alluded to.

I think the stigma regarding mental health has decreased locally here at Ohio State and nationally across the country. Students are more apt to reach out and meet with a counselor when they’re struggling with things.

We have students in this generation that are working and growing up in a very fast-paced society. There’s additional stressors, more things that they’re carrying on their shoulders. And there’s an increase in the anxiety that we see in students.

Traditionally, historically, depression was always the number one thing that students brought to university counseling centers. About four years ago, that flipped. And now anxiety is the number one presenting problem that students bring to the counseling center at Ohio State, as well as nationally. And depression is number two. And that divide between anxiety and depression, it grows each year.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Jennifer, are there schools dealing with this change differently?

In a couple of your stories, I found that one school really tried to send the kid away as fast as possible to get help, and another school didn’t. There doesn’t seem to be any uniformity.

JENNIFER RUARK: Every school obviously wants its students to be in an environment where learning is possible, both for the troubled individual and for the rest of his or her classmates.

But the care that they’re able to offer varies widely from campus to campus. You have some college campuses that are able to have an on-site psychiatrist, but there are many that don’t. There are many campuses which don’t have as many hours available at their counseling center, who are staffing the center with interns or trying to rely more on peer education and faculty intervention, simply because they don’t have the resources that they need.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Micky Sharma, you are at one of the biggest schools in the country, probably better-resourced than, say, community colleges or graduate schools around the country that might also be dealing with these populations and these challenges.

But what are the appropriate boundaries for an institution of learning today between caring for the mental, the physical, the emotional, the psychological well-being of a person, because someone is going to ask, listen, wasn’t your job just to be a university or a college and help teach? Now we’re really asking you to think about health care and mental health care.

MICKY SHARMA: So, I think that the job of the university is to provide as much as it can in terms of support services to help students be academically successful.

And, at the end of the day, that’s what university counseling centers are doing. That’s what my center is doing, is providing support to students, so that they can come to the university, be successful, graduate, earn a degree, and launch their career.

So, for many university counseling centers, what we’re doing is providing short-term treatment and on a time-limited basis at many centers, so that we’re able to provide students and reach as many students as possible.

Additionally, many centers have evolved into providing a menu of service options, so the majority of what we do is individual counseling, but there’s a lot of group counseling that we offer, as well as drop-in workshops to get coping strategies, better stress management strategies in the hands of as many students as possible.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Jennifer, what did your reporters find about the balancing act that some schools are having to do between trying to have their student populations safe and well cared for on the one hand and balancing privacy rights on the other?

JENNIFER RUARK: Well, a college is not going to know whether students come to campus with preexisting mental health conditions, unless the student or his family chooses to disclose that.

About one in four students reporting to campus counseling centers now are already on some kind of psychotropic medicine, in part because of the lifting of the stigma that you referred to earlier. So, if a faculty member or administrator notices a troubled student or notices signs that a student may be troubled, they can encourage that student to seek counseling and to talk to people, but unless it becomes a crisis situation, they can’t really force the student to seek counseling.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Micky Sharma, tell me a little bit about the challenge that that poses.

If you have a larger population coming to you year after year who might already have been in therapy for several years before they come to college or if, as Jennifer referred to, if they’re already on prescription medications, what does that do when you have to talk to them first?

MICKY SHARMA: So, in terms of what that does to the services at the university counseling center is, it forces us to look at different ways to reach students.

So, as I mentioned before, we do have in our center — the individual therapy is the number one thing that we do, but we also have psychiatrists who provide treatment. But we also look at other forms of resources to provide students, such as psychoeducational programming, the group counseling that we provide to reach more students simultaneously, and look at matching the services to a particular student’s need.

I often tell our faculty and staff, just because a student is crying doesn’t mean he or she needs psychotherapy. Sometimes, that’s actually the emotional response that I want to see. So we’re looking at getting the right level of service to match an individual student’s need.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Micky Sharma, Jennifer Ruark, thanks so much for joining us.

JENNIFER RUARK: Thank you.

MICKY SHARMA: Thank you.

JENNIFER RUARK: Thank you.

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