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Student Mental Health Concerns Outweigh University Resources

by on February 08, 2015 10:05 AM

About a decade ago, a group of counseling centers came together to form data standards regarding students seeking mental health services. For the first time ever, there was a definitive annual report being created to address rates and trends on student mental health care.

The report, which is created by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH), has a home in central Pennsylvania. Penn State collected data from over 140 institutions in the recently-published report covering 2013-2014. This data represents over 100,000 students nationally who received counseling.

Some of the findings include:

  • 1 out of 2 have been in counseling
  • 1 out of 3 have taken a psychiatric medication
  • 1 out of 4 have self-injured
  • 1 out of 3 have seriously considered suicide
  • 1 in 10 have been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons
  • nearly 1 in 10 have made a suicide attempt
  • 1 out of 5 have experienced sexual assault
  • 1 out of 3 have experienced harassment or abuse
  • 1 out of 3 have experienced a traumatic event

CCMH Executive Director Ben Locke, who also serves as an associate director for clinical services at Penn State’s Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS), is the man behind the report. Locke cites a number of trends that stand out to him as concerning when evaluating the latest report.

The most concerning of all is likely a slow but consistent increase in self-injury, or cutting one’s self, which Locke says has been edging up year after year. Similarly, the percentage of students who have seriously considered suicide appears to be ratcheting up over the past four or five years.

On the other hand, some downward trends are encouraging. Locke says there is a slight downward trend in the lifetime prevalence of receiving specialized drug and alcohol abuse treatment.

Also dropping off is the frequency of unwanted sexual contact and sexual assault, which is good news just a week after a Penn State sexual assault task force presented President Eric Barron with its findings and recommendations.

While this data can be attributed to the collective reporting of over 140 institutions, it does speak to the issues that counseling services has at Penn State. The report shows that students attend an average of just 4.75 sessions, which Locke attributes to a lack of resources from college counseling services.

“The parallel for me if you get strep throat and go into the health center and they test you and then ask you to come back in two weeks, and when you go back they say, ‘Here’s half a prescription for an antibiotic, that’s all we can do right now,’” Locke says. “That’s kind of the parallel to mental health that nationally institutions are struggling with. We either can’t provide treatment when its needed or we can’t provide enough treatment to enough students.”

That issue applies to larger institutions just as much as it applies to smaller ones. At Penn State, CAPS is largely underfunded and struggles to meet the demand of students for counseling services. In fact, CAPS still has a waiting list to see new students despite adding five new staff members after a $300,000 funding increase this past year.

“I would look at that as a first step for beginning to address the need for an increased level of services on campus,” Locke says. “My hope is that the university and community will continue to engage in a dialogue.”

Locke’s largest concern when it comes to mental health issues involving students is academic success. The report shows that academic success is strongly associated with a wide variety of mental health concerns, and Locke believes that it’s important to devote more resources to resolving these problems because of their impact on academics.

At Penn State, Locke says that the university will use this report in conjunction with its own extensive data from CAPS specifically to “understand the nature of the demand and to try and meet it.” Locke says that as CAPS continues to receive more funding and thus hire more counselors, one major issue that arises is space.  

“As we continue to have a dialogue about what the level of demand is and what kind of service level we need to achieve, one of the questions that invariably is on the table is space,” Locke says. “Where do you put people? Penn State University, despite its size, actually struggles with space for new services.”

While the report certainly brings up some data trends that are cause for concern, the dedication of CCMH to unveiling the problems with collegiate mental health care is certainly a step in the right direction.

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Zach Berger is the managing editor of He graduated from Penn State University in 2014 with a degree in print journalism. Zach enjoys writing about a variety of topics ranging from football to government, music, and everything in between.
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