February 2 (UPI) — Early in his first term at the University of California-Davis, Ryan Manriquez realized he needed help. A combination of pressures — avoiding COVID-19, enduring a breakup, coping with a disability, trying to keep up with a tough list of classes — hit him hard.
“I felt the impact right away,” said 21-year-old Manriquez.
After learning about UC-Davis’ free counseling services, Manriquez showed up at the student health center and arranged for an emergency Zoom session the same day. He was referred to other resources within days and eventually settled into weekly group therapy.
It was September 2020. Manriquez, now president of the student union, considers himself lucky. It can take up to a month to get a counseling appointment, he said, and that’s “at a school that really strives to make services available.”
Across the country, college students are seeking mental health therapy on campus in droves, part of a 15-year recovery that peaked during the pandemic. US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in December issued a rare public health advisory noting the growing number of suicide attempts by young people.
Colleges and universities are struggling to meet the demand for mental health services. Amid a nationwide shortage of mental health professionals, they compete with hospital systems, private practices and the burgeoning telehealth industry to recruit and retain counselors. Too often, campus officials say, they lose.
At UC-Davis, Cory Vu, associate vice chancellor, said the campus competes with eight other universities in the UC system, 23 universities in the state of California, and several other health systems and practices as it tries to add 10 advisers to its list of 34.
“Every college campus is looking for counselors, but so are all other health entities, public and private,” he said.
According to data compiled by KFF, more than 129 million Americans live in areas with a documented shortage of mental health professionals. Nearly 25,000 psychiatrists were working in the United States in 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. KFF data indicates that more than 6,500 additional psychiatrists are needed to fill the gap.
On campus, years of public awareness campaigns have led more students to examine their mental health and try to access school services. “It’s a really good thing,” said Jamie Davidson, associate vice president for student welfare at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. The problem is “we don’t have enough staff to take care of everyone who needs help”.
About three years ago, administrators at the University of Southern California decided to aggressively respond to the growing demand for mental health services for students. Since then, “we’ve grown from 30 mental health counselors to 65,” said Dr Sarah Van Orman, the university’s chief medical officer for student health.
The result? “We’re still overwhelmed,” Van Orman said.
Van Orman, former president of the American College Health Association, said the severity of student distress was increasing. More and more students are coming in with “active suicidal thoughts, which are in crisis, with such severe distress that they don’t work out,” Van Orman said. For counselors, “it’s like working in a psychiatric emergency room.”
As a result, wait times routinely stretch into several weeks for students with non-emergency needs, such as help dealing with classroom stress or transitioning to college. Professionals at campus counseling centers, meanwhile, have seen both their workload and the severity of individual cases increase dramatically, prompting some to seek employment elsewhere.
“This is an epidemic in its own right,” Van Orman said, “and it’s exploded over the past two years to the point that it’s unmanageable for many of our campuses — and, in ultimately, for our students”.
The pandemic has exacerbated the challenges students face, said UNLV’s Davidson. Lockdowns leave them feeling isolated and disconnected, unable to form crucial relationships and develop the sense of self that normally accompanies campus life. They also lose professional opportunities like internships and fall behind on self-care like going to the gym.
A study by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Pennsylvania State University found that of the 43,000 students who sought help last fall at 137 counseling centers on campus, 72% said the pandemic had an effect negative on their mental health. A online survey of 33,000 college students last fall found half of them “screened positive for depression and/or anxiety,” according to Boston University researcher Sarah Ketchen Lipson.
Even before the pandemic, staff members at the University Counseling Center were overwhelmed, said Bettina Bohle-Frankel, staff psychiatrist at Northwestern University. written in a recent letter at the New York Times. “Now, overworked, underpaid and burnt out, many therapists are leaving university counseling centers for less stressful work and better pay. Many do so to protect their own mental health.”
On average, a counselor position at UC-Davis requiring a master’s or doctoral degree pays $150,000 a year in salary and benefits, but pay can vary widely based on experience, Vu said. Even at this rate, says Vu, “sometimes we can’t compete with Kaiser [Permanente]other hospital settings or private practice.”
Tatyana Foltz, a licensed clinical social worker in San Jose, Calif., spent three years as a mental health services case manager at Santa Clara University. “I really enjoyed working with the students — they’re smart, dynamic and complex, and they get along,” Foltz said. But she left college a few years ago, lured by the flexibility of private practice and frustrated with a campus system that Foltz said didn’t reflect the diverse needs of her students.
Foltz returned to campus in December to support Santa Clara students as they protested what he said were inadequate services on campus, including an insufficient number of diverse counselors representing Black, Indigenous and LGBTQ+ communities. and other people of color. The protests followed the deaths of three students during the fall term, two of them by suicide.
“It shouldn’t take student deaths to get us better mental health resources,” said junior Megan Wu, one of the rally organizers. After the rally, the chairman of the Santa Clara Board of Trustees pledged several million dollars in new funding for the council on campus.
Replacing therapists who leave universities is difficult, Davidson said. UNLV has funding for eight new counselors, but the salaries it can offer are limited in a competitive hiring market.
However, universities are getting creative in their attempts to bring mental health resources to their campuses. UC-Davis integrates advisors into groups used by students such as the Intercultural Center and the LGBTQIA Resource Center. from Stanford University Bridge Peer Counseling Center offers 24/7 anonymous counseling for students who are more comfortable speaking with a trained classmate.
Mental health services available online or by phone, which many schools did not offer before the pandemic, could become a lifeline for colleges and universities. Students often prefer remote counseling over on-site counseling, Davidson said, and campuses will likely start offering their counselors the ability to work remotely as well — something private practices and some medical systems have been doing for years.
“You have to work hard and also smart,” Foltz said. “You need the numbers, but you also need the right mix of advisors. There is a constant need to have culturally competent staff members on a college campus.”
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and polling, KHN is one of the three main operating programs of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.