College students are increasingly experiencing mental health difficulties: a trend prevalent over the past few decades. A nationwide “campus mental health crisis” is what some people are calling the current situation, according to a report published in July 2017 by the National Council on Disability.
Rhonda Lesley, director of the counseling center at Missouri State University, said she thinks the nation is making progress and “forward movement.”
“I think one reason is … destigmatizing seeking care for mental wellness concerns, and people are now more willing to seek counseling or psychiatric services,” Lesley said.
In the past three school years, the number of crisis assessments increased by over 2,000 percent and individual students counseled increased by 50 percent at Missouri State, according to the 2017 annual report provided by the counseling center.
According to the report, students in crisis are the No. 1 priority for the counseling center. Students in crisis have increased since 2010. However, the increase in students scheduling crisis appointments in the past two years is “in part due to changes made in how the center schedules intake and crisis appointments compared with previously managing all appointments on a walk-in basis.”
“We are doing a better job of getting the message out to the campus as a whole that our services are available to students free of charge,” Lesley said. “I also think the fact that anxiety and stress are really high among college students lately causes more students to seek help coping through our services.”
Stress and anxiety are the most common health issues for college students according to the National College Health Association. Over 40 million U.S. adults have an anxiety disorder – that’s 18 percent according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“Still another factor is that college enrollment is up, and any time enrollment increases, the counseling center experiences an increase in utilization, also,” Lesley said.
Enrollment of first-time students went up by 1.8 percent at Missouri State from fall 2016 to fall 2017. Enrollment is at the highest point in history at 24,350 students, according to the Missouri State website.
Eighty-four percent of Missouri State counseling center clients attend one to five sessions each semester. This is in line with the national trend data for college and university counseling centers.
This aligns with national data according to the 2016 survey by the Association for Universities and College Counseling Center Directors, clients go to an average of five and a half sessions per semester.
“The first appointment is very anxiety provoking,” Chiara Citterio, graduate assistant at the Missouri State counseling center, said. “I totally understand that. To come here and make an appointment is really scary, then coming here and opening up to a stranger. But people who stick to it and come back for a second appointment, usually we really start seeing benefits.”
Citterio has worked at the counseling center since January 2017 and is pursuing her master’s in psychology at Missouri State.
“Every semester we have a trend of what brings in students,” Citterio said. “It seems like this semester there’s been a lot of social anxiety.”
She said that there is a trend of more students seeking help in the beginning of each semester and during midterms and finals.
“It makes sense because there’s a lot of academic distress that can also be displayed as anxiety,” Citterio said.
As a student, Citterio has an advantage because sometimes students open up to her more due to her ability to empathize with them. She says the counseling they give is future-oriented.
“Instead of focusing so much on the issue we try to focus on where the student wants to be,” Citterio said. “So, we start from where they are now and we try to get them to their goal. There’s not as much digging in the past.”
Missouri State students most commonly seek counseling for anxiety, depression, relationship problems and academic concerns.
The top three pressing concerns for counseling center students on a national scale are also anxiety, depression and relationship issues according to the 2016 survey by the Association for Universities and College Counseling Center Directors.
Missouri State was one of the participating Universities among 529 others.
Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed said over the past year, the severity of student mental health concerns and related behavior on their campus increased, while .8 percent said it decreased. Another 23 percent said it remained unchanged and 10 percent were unsure.
Citterio says she feels there is often a stigma around mental health.
“There’s that misconception of ‘my issues are not big enough’ or ‘I’ll be fine, I don’t need to go there.’ That can be true, but the fact that you have a counseling center on campus, it might mean that you don’t have to make it on your own,” Citterio said. “It is OK to reach out for help. We’re here, we’re happy to help.
Sometimes students come in for one appointment and they realize that maybe we’re not the resource that they need, but we’re able to point them in the right direction.”