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Life or Death: Colleges Need to Improve Their Mental Health Services Now

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Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

College can be stressful and overwhelming, especially for students who are balancing classes, jobs, extracurriculars, and their social lives. With college a more competitive environment than ever, it’s only natural that adequate mental health services be a priority on college campuses. Unfortunately, though, mental health resources are often scant and can’t always provide college students with the help they need.

With the mental health stigma gradually decreasing and the physical and mental effects of COVID-19 still looming large, more college students than ever are seeking out counseling services. For some students who live on campus or don’t have immediate access to reliable transportation, the college counseling center seems like the easiest way to seek out mental health counseling. Unfortunately, though, colleges nationwide have increasingly long wait times to see their limited counseling staff — some as many as 7 weeks.

The effects of the lengthy wait times on students are often exacerbated by the college environment itself. New students may have difficulty adjusting to managing their own schedules, finding friends they can trust, and living away from their families. But older students aren’t immune to college challenges, either — many upperclassmen have been forced to cope with the unexpected effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. As traditionally in-person classes have moved online and student activities have been reduced or made “COVID-19-friendly,” many students have struggled to adjust to the changes, which can exacerbate existing mental health struggles and create new ones. Therefore, students who are expected to wait weeks to access counseling on campus are at risk for other aspects of their college experience to significantly affect their mental health at a time when they don’t have the care they need.

As mental health awareness has spread around the nation, many colleges have paid lip service to their commitment to improving student mental health — but the reality of their counseling services is quite different than what they portray. Students from a variety of universities across the country have openly shared their challenges with navigating their colleges’ counseling centers, and their experiences are jarring. Some have reported that their schools’ respective counseling centers are severely understaffed to the extent that some only receive a phone assessment or a single session before being referred to off-campus providers who don’t accept their insurance. Others have shared that their schools have tried to force them into group therapy sessions, even if the thought of sharing their mental health challenges with a group makes them shut down. Perhaps most disturbing of all are students’ experiences with counseling staff who have dismissed their concerns as “non-urgent,” despite the fact that these same students have been suicidal for lengthy periods of time or have recently self-harmed.

It’s not enough for colleges to claim that they provide students with mental health services — they need to take action to make their counseling centers more accessible to students. A few large universities, like Arizona State University, have successfully eliminated wait times by seeing students as soon as necessary, which can help students with less time-consuming concerns and simultaneously free up appointment space for those who require more frequent individual sessions. Other schools have increased funding for their counseling services in response to student suicides, but it’s imperative for schools to allocate mental health funding as urgently as possible instead of waiting for a student crisis in order to implement change.

The college environment can significantly affect students’ mental health, but the lack of adequate counseling services on campus can worsen their symptoms. Schools need to increase funding allocations for their mental health programs, staff their counseling centers with qualified therapists and see students as urgently as possible in order to eliminate wait times.  With COVID-19 affecting mental health more than ever, it’s imperative that colleges prioritize student mental health now — before it becomes a matter of life or death.

Photo by Alex Azabache on Unsplash

Originally published: October 18, 2021
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