By SHABINA S. KHATRI
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
January 3, 2006
For years, Karen Latus knew something was wrong inside. When she got to college four years ago, she finally worked up the courage to seek help through her campus counseling center.
But because that center, like many across the nation, was inundated with students, Latus was given an appointment weeks into the future.
Rather than wait to see a counselor, Latus said she talked herself out of getting help – something that lots of students end up doing, she added.
“I was one of the people who fell through the cracks,” said the 22-year-old, now a fifth-year University of Michigan senior who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Her case is not unique.
For the last five years, growth in demand for campus psychological services has far outpaced the resources needed to fuel them. Just this season, counseling centers at the state’s three largest public universities –the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University – have been booked weeks in advance.
That leaves many students who need help, but are not yet in crisis situations, with two options – either wait for an appointment, or forego treatment altogether.
Neither choice is ideal, but balancing an increasing demand for services with program budget cuts has made it harder than ever to help, say center directors.
This is despite the fact that nine out of 10 mental health directors believe that students with significant psychological disorders are a growing concern on campus, according to the National Survey of Counseling Center Directors.
“We have the same problem the other centers have,” said Jan Collins-Eaglin, director of the Counseling and Psychological Services program at WSU – which sees double the number of patients now than it did when it opened three ago. “We’re at a point where it’s very hard to keep up.”
Postponing treatment is problematic because students who don’t get help will feel increasingly hopeless, added Collins-Eaglin – and that could lead to grave consequences.
Of the 137 student suicides reported last year, only 27 were current or former counseling center clients, according to the 2004 survey.
Why demand for counseling services has surged is unknown, but experts have various theories. One popular belief is that, for younger Americans, the stigma associated with having a mental health illness is fading. Another is that, thanks to the past decade’s advances in child and adolescent psychiatric care, more young people with mental illnesses are able to enroll in college – something they may not have been able to do in the past.
When these students enter the campus setting, the stress of college life may throw them off, causing them to seek more treatment, said Rachel Glick, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School.
To accommodate the growing demand under tightening budget constraints, colleges across the country are getting more creative, added Glick, who serves on the American Psychiatric Association’s Presidential Taskforce on College Mental Health.
MSU, for example, recently revamped its counseling services to make them easier to access, said Ann Flescher, assistant director for Multicultural Clinical Services. Changes included centralizing resources, so that students can go to a single location for help and be referred to other services – like the hospital or a private therapist – if needed. The center has also been working with the financial aid department to have the cost of mental health treatments considered in student aid packets.
But universities face another problem as they gear up to handle the influx of students who need attention – the perceived notion that there just isn’t help available.
At U of M, that problem is being tackled through a collaborative effort with the administration and students like Latus, who co-founded “Finding Voice,” a group that helps peers navigate through the myriad range of mental health services on campus.
“When you’re starting out, you don’t know how to use the system,” Latus said. “There are a lot of things that are in place that you can ask for – we really want to be able to provide students with the language that they need to get help.”
Many students, for example, don’t know that there is an onsite counselor who can speak to them the same day they come into the center.
This was a big help to Katie Roeder, who said she had made and canceled several appointments with U of M’s center before finding out there was someone she could speak with immediately.
Roeder, another founding member of “Finding Voice,” was diagnosed with a severe form of depression three years ago. She is now helping to train residence hall advisors on how to spot students with mental illnesses, and where to send them for help.
Regardless of budget cuts, staffing problems, and increasing demand, Glick said students who need help should always at least try to find treatment.
“If the word on campus is, they don’t have appointments until February, then students won’t even try – and that’s worrisome,” she said. “But don’t take the rumor as a reason not to call,” she added.