Oct 4, 2010

Availability and Use of Campus-Based Mental Health Services Vary Enormously among Virginia’s Colleges and Universities

The tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi on the Rutgers University campus underscores the increasing importance of readily available mental health or other support services to prospective college students and their families.

It’s no secret that the number of undergrads arriving on college campuses with counseling needs is overwhelming the capacity of many counseling centers to provide them. In fact, a recent study presented at the American Psychological Association’s annual meeting suggests a substantial increase in moderate to severe depression among undergraduates coupled with a doubling in the use of psychiatric medicines for depression, anxiety, and ADHD.

Yet in Virginia, a recent survey commissioned by the General Assembly’s Joint Commission on Health Care found wide variations in the availability and use of campus-based mental health services, with particular imbalances noted between public and private colleges and universities.

About 98 percent of the state’s 64 colleges participated in the survey which sought information on student access to mental health services and the ways in which colleges are responding to mental health crises.

According to testimony provided by University of Virginia law professor Richard Bonnie, counseling centers in Virginia’s private colleges have about 70 percent more staff and serve about 70 percent more students than counseling centers in four-year public institutions.

Survey results also indicate that an average of 56 students per four-year public college and six students per private college withdrew from school in 2008-09 for mental health reasons. Stated rates of medical withdrawal and psychiatric hospitalization in Virginia’s four-year colleges were 35 per 10,000 students for public schools and 12 per 10,000 in private institutions.

“During 2008-09, at least 11 Virginia college students committed suicide and at least 86 more attempted suicide,” Bonnie testified. “One-third of all public colleges experienced a student suicide, and about three-quarters experienced a student suicide attempt.”

The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors reports that 10.2 percent of students sought counseling during the 2008-09 academic year (a second study, the National Survey of Counseling Center Directors, found 10.4 percent of students at four-year institutions sought help). Among institutions with fewer than 1500 students, an average of 18.3 percent of students received counseling, and at institutions with enrollments of more than 35,000, 7.2 percent of students requested these services.

What does this mean for parents and students shopping for colleges? In general, you should be aware of the availability of mental health services regardless of immediate need. Michael Fitzpatrick, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, suggests asking the following questions:

• Does the college offer faculty and staff training on how to recognize the warning signs of mental illness?
• Does the school have “bridges” to services beyond campus if needed?
• Are mental health services available 24/7?
• Is there coordination between mental health care at home and on campus?
• Are accommodations available for students with mental health problems just as for those with other disabilities?

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