Mental health among college students has become a more widely recognized concern over the past several years, and even more so due to isolation brought on by the pandemic. Still, colleges and universities have a long way to go when it comes to connecting students to the right counselor or psychiatrist for help at the right time. There’s a significant push to encourage students to seek counseling services, but most institutions aren’t prepared to handle the demand. Resulting are long appointment waitlists, sporadic continued care, overworked counselors, and students struggling to get sufficient help.
Too Much Demand
Too many students are falling through the cracks. Many institutions are trying to figure out the best way to respond to such a deficit, and it’s quite complex. Staffing and funding are the major roadblocks. There aren’t enough counselors to keep up with student demand, and there aren’t enough resources to hire more licensed professionals. The national recommended ratio for college and university counseling services is one full-time professional staff member for every 1,000-1,500 students (International Accreditation of Counseling Services). If a counselor works nine hours per day and sees one student every hour, that’s 45 students per week. That’s too much for one counselor to handle and not enough to meet student needs.
This is why many students have to wait weeks before they can even get an initial appointment with the right professional. Students who need help now are added to the bottom of a waitlist because no one is available when they need it. Meanwhile, counselors are stretched thin. At some schools, counseling centers are so overloaded that they’ve stopped accepting new appointments altogether. Other students can’t access counseling when they need it because centers aren’t open after hours, they don’t know what offerings are available, or the process for making an appointment is obscure. If limited access and wait times continue as the norm, students will anticipate these barriers and be less likely to reach out for help.
Is a Solution Possible?
Even though it’s the most obvious solution, most institutions can’t easily hire more counselors to fill the gaps. The number of counselors needed at most schools would cost more than a million dollars per year. It would require some serious reallocation of funds, budget cuts, outside donors, grants, etc. to increase counseling staff and keep services free or low-cost for students. While some universities are making efforts to reallocate funding, others are impeded by bureaucracy, making this a long and complex process.
Although there’s a long road ahead, most institutions are aware of the problem. They recognize that mental health is tied to academic success and overall well-being. The majority of colleges and universities are heading in the right direction by improving access to resources and brainstorming innovative ways to reach students. As an example, see what these 10 schools are doing to better serve students in need of mental health support. Still, we can’t stop here.
What Every Counseling Center Needs
Like any student service, the keys to counseling support are accessibility, ease-of-use, and equitability. Are services easy to navigate and non-threatening? Can students make timely appointments to meet with the right counselor quickly? Does every student have equal access to mental health resources, or are there barriers inadvertently keeping some students away? The experience is just as important as getting more students in the door.
These are many reasons why a student might not utilize their campus counseling center:
- No appointment times available
- Stigma around mental health services
- Not knowing what resources are available or how to access them
- Long wait lists
- After-hours appointments not available
- Session costs
- No privacy for remote counseling
Such issues must be considered as institutions reevaluate mental health programs and resources. Even small steps in the right direction can make a difference in the long run.
Students face a lot of pressure in college. Academic performance, finances, work, sleep, family, uncertainty about the future, social media, a sense of belonging, and preexisting mental health conditions all shape a student’s well-being and outlook on life. If institutions are committed to supporting the college student as a whole person, mental health resources should be a priority. When students can get support easily at the right time, they are better set up to stay in school, complete their degree, and move toward a successful future.
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