Why students are flooding counseling centers: We told them to

Public outreach sought to remove stigma from attending

As more students use campus mental health services than ever before, many administrators are blaming today's students for having "extra-thin skins." Writing for The Atlantic, Isabella Kwai debunks this misconception.

Instead, Kwai reveals, more students seek counseling because initiatives to expand and destigmatize these services in higher education are actually working.

Last year, the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) released a report revealing that demand for counseling services at universities has outpaced the schools' enrollment growth five times over.

Some college administrators view these findings as troubling. Paired with calls for trigger warnings and safe spaces, they see the numbers as evidence of a less resilient population of students. A 2014 Los Angeles Times article referred to a "glorification of victimhood" that encouraged hypersensitivity on college campuses.

But Ben Locke, the executive director of the CCMH, argues that this increase in students seeking mental health services indicates that the change in national policy and culture in the past ten years has actually had its intended effects. 

Related: Trigger warnings don't censor difficult discussions—they encourage them

Such policy changes include the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, which directed millions of dollars of funding into suicide-prevention research and intervention programs. The programs encouraged students, faculty, friends, and roommates to refer students they think might be in trouble to seek help.

Micky Sharma, the president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD) adds that the smartphone culture among today's millennials also increases the risk of anxiety and depression among students. Many students struggle from what Sharma calls a "technology-enabled busyness" long before coming to college, but they haven't sought help prior to arriving on campus and discovering the inexpensive and easily accessible mental health resources.

With more people talking openly about mental health issues, the stigma against seeking help has also decreased. At the beginning of the school year, the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) published a mental health guide. Similar content and media coverage encourages students to talk openly about their personal mental health experiences.

The vast majority of schools today offer personal counseling services, and 58% of four-year colleges and 8% of two-year colleges offer psychiatric services, Kwai reports. And these services are appreciated as often as they're used—AUCCCD's annual report last year revealed that 71% of students who had used the counseling centers said that the services had been positive and ultimately helped them with their academic performances.

The same report from AUCCCD revealed that more than 50% of counseling centers upped their budgets last year. Most schools have directed the increased budget toward hiring more staff members and offering a wider variety of services for students, such as Ohio State University's drop-in workshops, yoga classes, and mental health management files. 

How to structure and deliver student mental health services

In some cases, however, the demand has surpassed the supply at mental health centers. So many students are seeking the services that the schools cannot keep up with necessary staff hires and budget increases. Many schools are working to determine the best way to offer sustained care and long-term treatment while giving urgent crises the priority attention they deserve.

These schools also need to hire more diverse counselors who will be able to identify with students' racial and cultural identities, argues Kwai. As the negative stigma against mental health subsides, experts predict the number of students seeking help will continue not only to grow, but also to diversify. 

How to support minority students' mental health needs

To look at everything higher education has been doing for mental health as damage control for a fragile and thin-skinned student population, Locke says, ironically contradicts a decade of public awareness campaigns (Kwai, The Atlantic, 10/19).

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