Help, I Need a Hotline: When it comes to mental health resources, universities can leave students wanting more

The number of college students with mental health issues is going up. What resources are available to them?

In the fall of 2013 I decided that I needed help. I was on campus and stuck in a heated, ongoing fight with my boyfriend of two years that was going in circles and only adding to the already-unhealthy dynamic of the relationship. I marched two minutes up the hill from where I was standing toward Glen Esk, the massive, 112-year-old, colonial revival-style white house that housed Towson University's Counseling Center, which I had walked by for weeks and debated entering.

I approached the Counseling Center, ignoring my boyfriend's protests and the looks from passersby as I felt those same shameful feelings that had kept me from visiting the center earlier bubble up inside me. I tried not to cry, much, as I spoke to the woman at the desk and filled out what seemed like 100 different forms and questionnaires she had given to me before I was ushered upstairs and into my first counseling session.

For the remainder of the semester I worked with one of Towson University's on-campus staff psychologists once a week free of charge, and was able to end the unhealthy relationship, assess my mental health, and learn tactics to help reduce my anxiety. I felt fortunate and thankful that I had been able to receive a free and helpful service in the moment that I needed it most, but still had to wonder what would have happened if things hadn't worked out so well.

The Center for Collegiate Mental Health reported in 2014 an 8-percent increase in the number of students seeking mental health services over the previous three school years. While this increase is in part due to the overall surge in enrollment in colleges and universities, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) said that counseling centers have also observed an increase in the "prevalence and severity of mental health issues experienced by students."

These issues are so severe that 64 percent of young adults with mental health issues dropped out due to mental-health-related reasons; half of those students did not access mental health services or supports. The NAMI reported that "concern of stigma" is the No. 1 reason why these students did not seek help.

Almost 73 percent of the 25 percent of students living with a mental health condition experienced a mental health crisis on campus, but 40 percent of those students with diagnosable mental health conditions did not seek help.

Although many schools nationwide partner with organizations such as the nonprofit Active Minds, which seeks to encourage students to speak openly about mental health in order to spread education, awareness, and encourage students to seek help when needed, some students still feel discouraged from utilizing the free services available to them.

This is especially unfortunate when, even if students decide to attend counseling, they are disappointed by the experience.

Goucher College sophomore Rachel Weinberg decided to try the on-campus counseling services after a friend, who had a positive experience with the center, recommended she try it. However, Weinberg says that the limited 12 sessions the school suggests each student use per year were unhelpful and, if anything, inconvenient.

"I personally need to form a relationship with my therapist before really anything happens," Weinberg says. "Because of the short amount of time it's really hard to come to any conclusions because you are, for those 12 weeks, speaking about your problems and there's not really time to reflect upon those because the sessions are relatively short and they are just very forced."

She says that each session had to be scheduled weeks in advance due to the center's high demand of students, and that the waiting room, which is in the same room as the school's student health center, was "really busy all of the time." Weinberg says that even though they were difficult to get, she sometimes still had to skip a few of her sessions because they were scheduled so far in advance that the timing was no longer convenient. The 2013 Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors reported that 32 percent of centers report having a waiting list at some point during the school year. Even as the demand for more services increases, the same survey finds that many center budgets remain unchanged or have increased only slightly from years past.

Although the school does offer peer-counseling sessions to provide additional resources for students, Weinberg felt that it was not a viable option for her or other Goucher students she knows.

"I have never used it [peer counseling] only because Goucher is so small, so you know whoever you are talking to, they are going to know you personally," she says. "I just don't feel like using it is a thing at Goucher only because everybody knows each other. It's really hard to talk to a peer about your problems, especially if they are serious."

According to Weinberg, the center never provided any kind of information or positive reinforcement to reduce the stigma surrounding seeking help with mental health. However, they did suggest she move to an outside practitioner by providing her a list of local psychiatrists. Without any kind of long-term individual counseling available at the school, a referral process appears to be the best approach for Goucher students—Monica Neel, the director of Goucher's Student Counseling Services, writes in an email that the center this fall is staffed with one full-time psychologist, two full-time master's level clinicians, and one half-time master's level clinician, with "access to a psychiatrist" for six hours each week through the college's health center.

Another concern of students is the restricted hours during which the counseling service is able to provide help. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death on college campuses (and the third-leading cause of death for people ages 15-24), so it is critical that students immediately know where to look for help during a mental health emergency. Panic attacks, depression, and contemplation of suicide can happen at any time, not just between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Goucher allows walk-in sessions without an appointment the way Towson and some other schools do, and allots a one-hour window for "urgent" or "crisis" situations at 1 p.m. Monday through Friday, except Thursdays, when it is set for 2 p.m. Neel writes that after office hours and on weekends, clinicians are available on call through the dean "in case of mental health emergency." Other than that, students are given a list of local emergency contacts such as the Office of Public Safety, the Baltimore County Crisis Hotline, and your nearest emergency room.

Towson does not clearly provide any 24-hour services other than the list of emergency and self-help resources provided on its page alongside the number for campus police, who, according to Towson's website, "are able to reach Counseling Center staff as needed in an emergency, for consultation or other forms of help." Johns Hopkins offers any student who are enrolled in the engineering school, Peabody Conservatory, or the school of arts and sciences the opportunity to speak with the Counseling Center's after-hours, on-call counselor who can be reached through contacting the Homewood Campus Security.

Loyola offers students who live on campus the option of contacting their resident adviser, who can access a counselor for emergencies during the hours the center is closed. And Morgan State's website provides every current student with a number to reach a counselor who is "available on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week in case of emergency" through either the student's residence hall director or the campus police.

All of these services require students to first speak with an individual who is not associated with the counseling center before being redirected to the emergency counselor. From there, it's up to the stranger on the phone, who has the power to decide the seriousness of the situation and whether or not that student will be connected to someone who can help. •

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