More college students seeking mental health help

When 21-year old Lauren Peck came to St. Olaf College three years ago, the stress of being a college student pushed her anxiety level over the top.

Although Peck had dealt with anxiety issues before heading to college, after arriving on campus she felt much worse. Recognizing that she needed help, she contacted the campus counseling center.

"All the newness of college, new friends, new location, new academics -- all combined it was just too much," she said.

A psychiatrist prescribed medicine for Peck's anxiety, and she started meeting with a therapist every week. By her second semester, her anxiety was under control.

Her situation isn't an isolated one. An increasing number of college students in Minnesota and across the nation are seeking mental health services on Minnesota's college campuses.

This month's shooting in Arizona has highlighted concerns about the availability of mental health services for students. The man accused in the shooting rampage in Tuscon that killed six people and left 14 wounded, among them U.S. Rep. Gabriel Giffords, was a former college student whose behavior prompted his community college to suspend him.

College can be stressful place for students. Away from home, they face new surroundings, new friends and new academic and financial pressures.

There also has been a big jump in the number of students on campus with serious psychological disorders. They make up 44 percent of students who come to college counseling centers now according to a report from the American College Counseling Association. A decade ago it was 16 percent.

At the University of Minnesota, the campus mental health clinic saw 2,490 students last year. That's about 90 percent more than they served a decade ago.

Students dealing with serious mental health concerns, threatening suicide or violence, are seen right away. But other students who seek mental heath treatment are put on a waiting list, said Gary Christenson, the clinic's director.

"This year we reached a high of 40, and probably would have gone higher if we didn't take some correction actions to try to get more people in," he said.

Counselors have expanded their hours to deal with the crush of students seeking care, Christenson said.

For students dealing with mild depression or anxiety, Christenson said waiting two to three weeks to see a therapist isn't the best option.

"Ideally we'd like to get everyone in as early as possible," he said. "There's a certain point where you just can't anything more out of the resources that you have."

Counselors point to a couple of major reasons why more students are seeking treatment.

They say there is less of a stigma surrounding therapy than in the past, so more students feel comfortable seeking care.

Also, more students who've already been diagnosed with mental health disorders are going to college, students who in the past may have not come to campus at all.

At Bemidji State University, counseling center clinical director Larry Hanus, has seen more students with serious mental health issues come into his office in the past several years.

"We're definitely seeing increases in the number of students requesting services here, and also in the nature and severity of the presenting issues," said Hanus, one of two therapists.

He said coping with the growing number of students seeking help has been difficult. The center saw 335 patients last year up from 292 the year before.

The organization that accredits college counseling centers across the country, the International Association of Counseling Services, recommends one counselor for every 1,500 students.

"If you look at our enrollment of about 5,000, we're at about half the level we should be," Hanus said.

He doesn't expect his college will hire new counselors anytime soon. That's because Bemidji State University and other public colleges in the state, face the potential of budget cuts this year as lawmakers deal with a $6.2 billion budget deficit.

Mental health officials at Minnesota colleges say to deal with the increase in students seeking care, they'll have to be creative. That means shifting more of their resources from education and prevention of mental health issues, to treating students in the clinic.

For students like Peck, such visits can make a difference. Now a senior set to graduate in the spring, she's doing fine.

"Just to have that outlet to talk about what was going on in my life and to talk about how this week went and what went badly this week and what was hard for me to handle," she said.

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