Are Universities Doing Enough for the Mental Health of their Students?
University students have been among the most consistently stressed out group of people in the country coming out of the pandemic. Schools have taken measures to attempt to alleviate the stress, but is it enough? Emily Richards, Madison Castagnola, Lynn Lazaro, and Chloe Cross investigate and share their own experiences.
A recent study done by The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds revealed that roughly 73% of university students have experienced some sort of mental health crisis during their time at college. University students have always been exposed to large quantities of pressure and stress– a fact that rang true far before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
In fact, colleges have been offering counseling services going back to the early 20th century. The first known college to implement mental health services, originally called “mental hygiene”, was Princeton University in 1910.
Over a century later in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic began, and the added stressors of risking physical health, losing loved ones, financial insecurity, and isolation came into play. The mental health of university students was bound to deteriorate.
In an interview with the Reynolds Sandbox, the Director of Counseling Services at the University of Nevada, Reno, Yani Dickens discussed the numbers that mental health providers are facing. “The need for mental health services has increased a lot, maybe it’s doubled,” Dickens said.
Data released by the Mayo Clinic in 2021 reported that half of college students had felt overwhelmingly anxious. Of these struggling students, only 25% reached out for help.
Other studies reported that the number of depression cases has doubled since 2019.
Colleges have been pouring millions into COVID-19 reporting systems and testing sites, but statistics show COVID has not been the main cause of death among students.
The CDC reported in 2020 that in the 15–24 age category 1.6% of deaths were from COVID-19 and 19.3% from suicide. Colleges were quick to pour funding into preventing the virus, but are they doing enough to address what kills a hundred students a month?
In an effort to help ease mental health struggles among students, the University of Nevada, Reno, offers individual counseling and group therapy through Counseling Services. The services are available to students who are enrolled in at least six credits, and are meant as a short term solution.
When students first establish contact with Counseling Services they are told that they can only use the services for the semester. If a student wants longer-term treatment, they have to participate in group therapy.
“I didn’t want to do group therapy because I felt like my problems were very personal to me,” one student, who wanted to remain anonymous, said about their experience.
When they were utilizing counseling services, their counselor continuously pushed them to try it. “I didn’t want other people on campus … to know those things,” the student said.
The Counseling Services website assures students that state, federal and HIPAA laws protect the privacy of students utilizing their services. However, the aforementioned student believed that college students would gossip regardless of these laws.
“I feel like my information wouldn’t be mine,” they said.
Dickens stated that students are screened before participating in group therapy and are asked to keep the names and information of other students in their group private. Dickens explained each student is asked to agree to an agreement regarding confidentiality.
“I’ve worked here for 14 years and no student has ever told me ‘No I don’t want to do that and I won’t,” Dickens said. “And no student to my knowledge has ever broken that agreement.”
Like many other businesses and organizations, the pandemic deeply affected the ability to fill positions. Dickens explained that they lost more staff than they usually do when COVID hit and it has been hard to fill those positions. As the demand for counselors has risen above what it was pre-pandemic, providers are taking on more students than usual.
“Each provider seems to be providing even a little bit more counseling than they used to before the pandemic,” Dickens said.
This is another reason group therapy is often recommended because counselors are able to see more students and provide services. Dickens explained that group therapy is also the best way to treat certain mental health issues, like anxiety for example.
For students that don’t feel comfortable with group therapy, counselors will often refer them to therapists in the community.
According to the Associated Students of the University of Nevada, Reno, campus surveys have shown that 20% of students at the university do not have health insurance.
“When I was attending therapy sessions [off campus] without insurance, it cost me more than $300 for a one hour session,” reporter Lynn Lazaro attests.
The only reason they were able to afford it was because they were working full-time and not attending school. As a full-time student, they no longer have the resources to receive long-term care without insurance coverage.
Dickens explained that UNR’s counseling services have both a case manager and a clinical director that meet with students who reach out with financial concerns. They are also connected with providers in the community who understand the tough financial stress college students have.
“We have a network of providers who are willing to see students, and we’re growing that network on a sliding scale, meaning at a more affordable and usual way,” Dickens said.
They also highly encourage those who do not have health insurance to get student health insurance, not only for mental health services, but in case any medical emergency occurs. The University offers student health insurance through Aetna at a lower rate than outside providers.
Our Personal Experiences
While reporting about this, our group took a step back to consider our personal experiences with mental health and counseling services.
Emily: As an incoming freshman in August 2020, beginning college was quite difficult. Everything was over Zoom and there were really no events to attend which made it hard to meet new people. I could tell my professors were stressed about teaching their classes virtually and in turn I was stressed. I did utilize counseling services and the staff was very nice and helpful when appointments could be scheduled. I would recommend it to students if they really do need help because it might open a door to feeling better. Finding that 50% of college students are struggling with mental health in one way or another really shows that this topic needs attention from the university and the world in general.
Madison: I started at UNR in the fall of 2018 and to this day I have not used or really heard of the counseling services. Before starting college, I had seen therapists in high school for learning disabilities and other things. Knowing that it can be a taboo subject made it hard to ask for those resources in college. Before doing this project, I didn’t even know where the counseling center was located on campus. All I had ever heard was about rules they had in place about who you could see, how many times they could see you and how strict they were with time making it hard to want to reach out to this service. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of awareness around counseling services at UNR so that students who need help can get what they need.
Chloe: I am going to be a senior at UNR next Fall, and in my time here, I have not used the counseling services provided by the school. I have heard of them, but not very often, and a lot of the student feedback I have heard is not always the most positive. I think the biggest issue is that the services are not very well advertised to students. I remember being told that the services exist during orientation, but not much about how to take advantage of them. I have personally struggled with mental health issues related to the stress of my studies, but since getting an appointment with the on-campus counseling services seems intimidating/complicated, I have found other ways to deal with it!
Lynn: I’ve always had a lot of mental health challenges regarding school, then regarding the army after I joined in 2018. Counseling Services was always the first place that I tried to go to. I’ve had a generally good experience with the people there, but never felt taken care of because of how short-term the services were. I also distinctly remember them mentioning “Emergency Call Hours.” If I wasn’t able to get an appointment, or if I had an emergency, I could call within a set time frame, and they would assist me. My first thought was, “But what If I want to throw myself off the roof outside of that time frame? What then?” I understand now that there are emergency helplines, and that Counseling Services probably doesn’t get the funding they need to help students with everything. I think the university should be paying more attention to student mental health, and giving Counseling Services what they need to help students.
Director Dickens explained that UNR is partnering with the University of Michigan to research mental health trends among college students and staff at the University of Nevada, Reno.
This survey would provide concrete data that could then be used to advocate for more funding towards mental health services. With current staff overloaded with more students than usual per provider and mental health issues doubling since the beginning of the pandemic, more funding would greatly improve therapy experiences.
“Our students show higher rates of anxiety, depression and eating disorders than other university students at most other colleges across the nation,” Dickens said.
There are students who are benefiting from available help.
“I kind of love therapy,” another student who wanted to remain anonymous said. She has been using school funded therapy since 2019, first starting with Great Basin Behavioral Health, then the Downing Clinic [a long-term counseling option] at the University of Nevada, Reno.
For her, therapy has helped her manage the stresses of life, and school. She even says that it saved her life.
“I’ve definitely gone through some dark feelings,” she said. “And without therapy, and without a few close friends I probably wouldn’t be alive.”
In case of emergencies, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1–800–273–8255.