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Increasing enrollment rates strain university mental health systems

As enrollment rates increase at universities across the country, counselors say they face more difficulties handling student mental health concerns.  And as KBIA’s Scott Kanowsky reports, the University of Missouri system is feeling the strain as well.                                     

Dr. David Wallace is standing in front of a class of college students, a PowerPoint projection lit behind him.  It is Suicide Prevention Week at MU, so Wallace is giving tips on coping with severe mental health problems.

Wallace is the head of the counseling center at the MU campus, where enrollment grew more than 4 percent from 2010.  A licensed psychologist, Wallace says he and his staff treat more students each year.

“We were seeing this, maybe not in the 1980’s, but starting in the 1990s definitely.”

Statistics from the MU Counseling Center show a 35 percent increase in the number of students seeking counseling and psychotherapy treatment in the past five years, including a nearly 280 percent spike in “crisis appointments”.

The numbers, Wallace says, have him worried his office—which is funded by a mandatory “activity” fee levied on all MU students-- will be unable to handle the influx in students, or meet accreditation standards of the International Association of Counseling services.

“Their suggestion is a minimum of one professional staff member, not a trainee, one professional staff member for every 1500 to 1000 students," Wallace said."When you look both at what student health offers as far as psychologists, what we have available in psychologists and counselors, we’re somewhere around 1 to 1900.”

That’s still an improvement since 2009, when the Counseling Center struggled to fill the need for professionals, employing only six licensed individuals on staff—a five year low. Counseling Center staff say the shortage forced students to wait sometimes weeks or months before receiving any treatment. The Counseling Center now employs twelve full-time and two part-time professionals.  A large majority of the work, however, is done by a legion of graduate students, not licensed therapists.  

Wallace says the graduate students on his staff are carefully screened before being hired and the University is always striving to close that gap. But Wallace admits with an influx in students comes a decrease in sessions with a counselor and a move toward resolving mental health issues in a quicker time frame. Although, he couldn’t provide specifics.

“We try to work with most of the situations as much as we possibly can in a briefer period of time.  It’s a management kind of thing,” he said. "We’re trying to give them quality, but working within briefer models.”

Back in the classroom listening to Wallace is a senior MU residence hall coordinator. He wanted to be called John for this story.

But he says he’s uneasy about shorter sessions with students in need of counseling.

“I’ve heard that it’s underutilized, what they have. So it’s something that I think is necessary, but I wouldn’t want less. I wouldn’t want cut-backs there,” John said.

But John and officials at the University of Missouri in Columbia are not the only one’s saying they are experiencing such challenges.

The University of Missouri-Kansas City has seen a 175 percent increase in the number of students using the on-campus counseling center in the last decade.  And the Missouri University of Science & Technology had already seen more than 400 students in 2011 than in each of the past three years.

Patti Fleck heads the counseling center at Missouri S&T. She says there’s a link between an increase in enrollment and more mental health problems.

“I think for the last several years the demographics have been increasing. There’s more students graduating from high school, and so, more students coming to college," Fleck said. "In terms of percentages, the number of students seeking council has increased as the enrollment has increased.”

Dr. Wallace says he knows there are certain limitations placed on to every university mental health center.

“We realize we’re not everything to everybody.  We can’t be a full-service, everything from brief intervention to long-term therapy treatment.  We can’t be all of those things, we don’t have the funding, we don’t have the staff.” 

In the end, Wallace says, “everybody is dealing with this.”

This report is part of an effort by the Investigative Journalism Education Consortium, which includes Midwestern university journalism professors and students working on news projects in the public interest. The Consortium is supported by a grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. Read the IJEC consortium stories here.