Stability in Student Mental Health

May 4, 2010

The alarming spike in demand for mental health services on college campuses that began about a decade ago appears to be leveling off, a just-released survey of counseling center directors suggests.

The findings of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors’ 2008-9 poll of hundreds of member institutions point to a new stasis, where the number of students arriving on campuses in need of counseling or psychotropic medications is remaining constant from year to year, though still likely to keep counseling centers strained.

“In the last few years, I think we’ve seen stabilization,” said Victor M. Barr, the survey’s lead author and a director of counseling and psychological services at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. “That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of students to see, just that it doesn’t seem like it’s changing as rapidly as a few years ago.”

The survey was sent to members at 752 institutions in North America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Australia. In all, 363 responded.

Across all respondents, 10.2 percent of students sought counseling during the 2008-9 academic year, about the same as in the directors group’s two previous surveys. At institutions with fewer than 1,500 students, an average of 18.3 percent of students sought counseling. At institutions with enrollments of more than 35,000, it was 7.2 percent. (Another study, the National Survey of Counseling Center Directors, found that 10.4 percent of students at four-year institutions sought help in 2008-9.)

Perhaps related to the stable proportion of students seeking counseling was a decline in the perception by counseling center directors that mental health problems were on the rise at their institutions. In this year’s survey, 94 percent of respondents said “the number of students with severe psychological problems is [a] growing concern on their campuses.” In the 2007-8 survey, it was 96 percent. In 2006-7, it was 97 percent.

Despite the onslaught of national and local economic problems during the survey year, fewer counseling jobs were cut than were added. Respondents reported a total of 82 new professional clinical positions created, while 34 were lost. “We saw these small gains in staffing, but I’m not sure the same thing will happen in our next survey because of economic conditions,” Barr said. Counseling services aren’t a popular place to cut budgets, he added, but they’re not likely to be the first place where institutions direct funds, either.

Colleges aren’t out of the woods yet. Seventy-three percent of respondents said there had been an increase in the last year in the number of students already on psychotropic medications who were seeking counseling services, and 71 percent said they thought the number of students with severe psychological problems had risen during the survey year.

The most common conditions seen in students were depression (seen in 37.5 percent of students visiting a counseling center), anxiety (36.8 percent) and relationship issues (35.9 percent). Nearly a quarter of patients seen in counseling centers were taking psychotropic medications.

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