College students seek therapy in record numbers

Friday, February 23, 2007


The number of UW students seeking new medical evaluations for mental
health problems such as depression and anxiety has nearly tripled in the
past five years.

At SPU, one-fifth of its undergraduate student body has sought therapy,
many of the students reporting that they were suffering from stress.

Universities around the country -- including the University of
Washington, Seattle Pacific University and Seattle University -- are
reporting increases in campus mental illness, at times creating a
backlog of cases and weeks-long waits to see a therapist.

No one is certain what's behind the phenomenon. Experts suggest that
students today face greater pressures, taking on college loan debt to
pay for rising tuition. Therapy is more socially acceptable, prompting
more students to seek help. And students who once might not have
attended college because of a mental illness are being diagnosed
earlier, making it possible for them to go on to higher education.

"The generation that's in college right now grew up with Prozac
advertised on television," said Alison Malmon, 25, executive director
and founder of Active Minds on Campus, a grass-roots organization
working to reduce the stigma of mental illness.

Some counseling centers are struggling to meet the demand.

The UW -- with a Seattle campus of more than 39,000 -- has fewer staff
at its clinic and counseling center than national standards recommend,
directors said. At one point, the UW Mental Health Clinic had a backlog
of more than 100 cases. That means students sometimes can't see a
therapist for days or have to go off campus and pay for services. The UW
Mental Health Clinic is covered under the UW student insurance; some
visits to its Counseling Center are free.

Local universities are trying to make it easier for students to get
help. They have increased the number of free counseling visits available
to students and cleared counselors' schedules for same-day appointments.

Access to such services on campus -- close by where students spend most
of their time -- can make a difference.

Matthew, a 22-year-old SPU junior, entered counseling three months ago
to deal with depression and self-esteem issues, which almost kept him
from returning to school. He also met with a doctor at the campus health
clinic who prescribed an antidepressant.

The student had trouble dealing with teasing when he was younger.
Talking about his past has helped him learn how to let go of such

"I've been able to process a lot of things, kind of come to a better
understanding of who I am personally and not who I am in the eyes of
other people," he said.

One out of every four students served by counseling centers is on
psychiatric medication, according to a national survey of counseling
center directors. That's up from fewer than one in 10 in 1994.

Some directors are also reporting that not only are they seeing more
students, but the students they see also have more severe psychological

The college years can be a developmentally difficult period. It's a time
when youths are forming their identities and moving from childhood to
adulthood. Mental illnesses often develop in people during their late
teens and early 20s.

Some students arrive on campus with unresolved childhood issues or
traumas. Others struggle with living away from home for the first time.
They may face problems at the university -- challenging classes or the
breakup of a romantic relationship -- or may be upset by world events.

About 20 percent of the 3,000 undergraduates at Seattle Pacific
University sought therapy from its counseling center last year, said
Steven Maybell, director of the Student Counseling Center. Other
universities around the country serve about 9 percent of their student
bodies on average.

The Queen Anne campus also has seen an increase in the number of
students attempting suicide, though none were successful, Maybell said.

Liz, a 20-year-old SPU sophomore, started counseling last fall. Her
father committed suicide, and her grandmother died soon thereafter. She
met with a counselor weekly to talk about her father's death and her
daily life. He helped deal with her loss, such as creating a network of
friends to rely on.

"It's stressful enough going to school, and then having a traumatic
event happen. It almost makes it impossible to get through," she said.
It's "a great resource to have as a student."

She now meets the counselor monthly, to discuss relationships and the
pressures of attending school and working two jobs.

"Meeting with (the therapist) has made it so I can have an outlet," she
said. "Sometimes it's better to get his perspective since he can see
things from an outside kind of view."

Resources scarce

Colleges are trying to deal with the growing number of mental health

But directors say they don't have enough resources to deal with the
increasing population and need more money to hire additional staff and
more space for meeting rooms.

Two years ago, the UW mental health clinic began setting aside time for
same-day appointments. Students who needed to be seen could get a slot
by calling in the morning.

The clinic also doubled the number of visits covered by graduate
students' health insurance to 20 per academic year.

The UW Counseling Center -- which is separate from the Mental Health
Clinic -- eliminated the $15 intake fee and $30 fee for a student's
first visit. Now a student's first five visits to the center are free,
thanks to funding from a student fee. That's resulted in even more
students using the services, said director Kathryn Hamilton.

Seattle University has begun offering more group sessions, so one
therapist can see several students at once.

And Seattle Pacific University has nearly tripled the number of
master's-level interns working in its counseling center.

All colleges have counselors available in emergencies for students who
are suicidal or in a crisis. Some also offer support groups for students
with eating disorders and other problems. A few university departments
-- such as the UW School of Law -- have their own counselors.

The UW's Mental Health Clinic is developing an online survey that
students can take to determine if they might be depressed, anxious or
have an eating disorder. The Web site, which is scheduled to launch next
month, would enable students to make therapy appointments online, which
might encourage more to seek help.

"We have to take an active role," said Anil Coumar, director of the UW
Mental Health Clinic.

A UW sophomore is also working to establish a chapter of a national
mental health organization on campus.

Psychology student Amy Moretti, 19, wants to start a student club that
is affiliated with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which
already has chapters at Central, Eastern and Western Washington

Moretti, who has a family member with mental illness, said she hopes to
educate her peers about mental health issues and how they can get help.
Many students experience stress and difficulties during college but
don't necessarily talk about it.

"It's a big school," she said. "If you don't find a little community of
support, it can be lonely. People can easily fall into a depressed state
and feel like there's nobody around who's going through the same thing."


The National Alliance on Mental Illness offers tips on selecting a
college campus that offers the mental health services you need.

        *       Look up the Web site for the campus mental health
clinic. Find out if the clinic charges fees and how many psychologists
are on staff.

        *       Locate hospitals and private practices near campus where
you can receive longer-term care.

        *       Ask the college if it offers special services, such as
test rescheduling, for people with mental disabilities.

        *       Research the school's confidentially policies.

For more information, visit < <> > .


P-I reporter Christine Frey can be reached at 206-448-8176 or
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