Surging Demand for Mental Health Care Jams College Services

Colleges across the country are failing to keep up with a troubling spike in demand for mental health care — leaving students stuck on waiting lists for weeks, unable to get help. STAT surveyed dozens of universities about their mental health services. From major public institutions to small elite colleges, a striking pattern emerged: Students often have to wait weeks just for an initial intake exam to review their symptoms. The wait to see a psychiatrist who can prescribe or adjust medication — often a part-time employee — may be longer still. Students on many campuses are so frustrated that they launched a petition last month demanding expanded services. They plan to send it to 20 top universities, including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, MIT, and Columbia, where seven students have died this school year from suicide and suspected drug overdose. “Students are turned away every day from receiving the treatment they need, and multiple suicide attempts and deaths go virtually ignored each semester,” the petition reads. More than 700 people have signed; many have left comments about their personal experiences trying to get counseling at college. “I’m signing because if a kid in crisis needs help they should not have to wait,” one wrote. STAT requested information from 98 campuses across the country and received answers from 50 of those schools. Among the findings: At Northwestern University, it can take up to three weeks to get a counseling appointment. At Washington University in St. Louis, the wait time runs nearly 13 days, on average, in the fall semester. At the University of Washington in Seattle, delays in getting care are so routine, the wait time is posted online; it’s consistently hovered between two and three weeks in recent months. In Florida, where educators are pressing the state legislature for millions in new funding to hire counselors, the wait times at University of Florida campuses can stretch two weeks. Smaller schools aren’t exempt, either: At Carleton College, a liberal arts campus in Northfield, Minn., the wait list can stretch up to 10 days. A few weeks’ wait may not seem like much. After all, it often takes that long, or longer, for adults to land a medical appointment with a specialist. But such wait times can be brutal for college students — who may be away from home for the first time, without a support network, and up against more academic and peer pressure than ever before. Every class, every meal, every party can become a hurdle for students struggling with eating disorders, depression, and other issues. Many counseling centers say that they are often overwhelmed during the most stressful times for students, such as midterms and finals. Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., for example, reports a wait time of up to a month during busy periods. In most instances, STAT’s examination found, students who say that they are suicidal are seen at once, and suicide hotlines are available for after-hours emergencies. But some students are uncomfortable acknowledging an impulse to harm themselves, and thus get pushed to the end of the line, along with undergrads struggling with concerns ranging from acute anxiety to gender identity issues. Campus counselors are acutely aware that they’re leaving students stranded but say they don’t have the resources to do better. “You’re making sure people are safe in the moment,” said Ben Locke, who runs a national college counseling network and directs counseling services at Pennsylvania State University. “But you’re not treating the depression or the panic attacks or the eating disorders.” ‘I needed to see someone’ Constance Rodenbarger, now in her third year at Indiana University, first sought help at the counseling center in her second semester, as she struggled to deal with an abusive relationship on top of long-term depression. The next appointment was at least two weeks away. “I was just looking at that date on the calendar and thinking, ‘If I can just make it one more day,’ but then it became just one more hour, and then one more minute,” she said. “I just couldn’t hang on.” The day before her appointment, on Nov. 17, 2014, she tried to kill herself. Her roommate found her, and Rodenbarger was rushed to the hospital. She called the counseling center from the hospital to say she wouldn’t be able to make it in the next day. “When I called that day and said, ‘I need to see someone,’ I needed to see someone,” she said. Indiana University now says it connects with all students who seek counseling within two days. But that connection can involve simply setting up an appointment — for up to three weeks away. “We, like centers across the country, are working on expanding our staff,” said Nancy Stockton, the director of Indiana University’s counseling center. “We certainly need more clinicians.” Indiana University and several other large schools said they employ one counselor for roughly every 1,500 undergraduates. That’s at the high end of the range recommended by national experts. The numbers reported in an annual national survey are even more stark: In 2015, large campuses reported an average of one licensed mental health provider per 3,500 students. When students do get in to campus counseling centers, most see therapists, social workers, or perhaps psychologists. Just 6 in 10 college counseling centers have a psychiatrist available, even part-time, to prescribe or adjust medications, according to the annual...

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