KU sees increased demand for student mental health services

photo by: Journal-World file photo

Watkins Memorial Health Center at the University of Kansas is shown in this Journal-World file photo from 2012.

Some have called the situation a “crisis.” But Michael Maestas, director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at the University of Kansas, wouldn’t go that far, at least in describing conditions on his campus.

But you certainly can describe his department as very busy. Look at statistics: The university’s counseling and psychological services saw a total of 120 psychiatric visits in May. That was an increase of more than 73 percent from May 2017, according to a report issued by KU’s Student Affairs department.

Maestas said the demand for mental health services at KU is high, exceeding the available services “at most universities and communities.”

“While people seeking mental health care may experience increased intensity and need prompt access to services, and individually may be experiencing a crisis,” he wrote in an email, “the overall level of demand does not present a crisis for the system.”

Across the country, colleges and universities are dealing with an unprecedented demand for counseling services from their students. And the supply is struggling to keep up with that demand.

A 2016 report from Penn State University’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health revealed a 50 percent increase in the number of college students seeking mental health treatment from the previous school year. The 139 colleges and universities participating in the study reported 150,483 individual students seeking these services — with only 3,419 clinicians on hand to carry out the 1 million-plus appointments.

“That is probably the biggest growing demand on campuses across the country right now,” Girod said. “But we are no exception.”

There are several reasons for this increased demand, Maestas said.

“Generally, and in particular for the college-aged population, there has been advancement in the reduction of stigma associated with mental health issues,” Maestas said. “There has also been an increase in early recognition of mental health issues and consequently an increase in the number of students entering college who are already in treatment.”

There’s also, maybe, a small silver lining in the increased demand.

photo by: Nick Krug

Stress-busting dogs: University of Kansas seniors Emmile O’Hara, Chicago, front, and Michelle Johnson, Wichita, stop to give some hugs to two English cream retrievers, Gunner and Annie Oakley, on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017, in the McClendon atrium of the LEEP 2 building. Several dogs visited the School of Engineering as part of a “Stress Busting Study Break” organized by representatives of Watkins Health Center’s Health Education Resource Office to give students studying for finals a moment of stress relief.

“Additionally, advances in treating serious mental illness have generally improved quality of life, which has enabled individuals with these illnesses to pursue a college education,” Maestas said.

At KU, anxiety is the “number one presenting concern,” Maestas said, and has been over the last four years, followed by depression. CAPS also frequently sees issues related to problem-solving, interpersonal relationships, stress management and affect (or emotion) regulation.

Like other mental health facilities across the country, CAPS has struggled to deal with the increased demand. But there has been some relief in recent months, thanks to one anonymous donor’s undisclosed gifts to KU Endowment. The two donations have enabled CAPS and KU’s Student Affairs department to hire additional staff and launch a new peer educator team dubbed HOPE @ CAPS.

The new hires include a psychiatrist, and also a coordinator for student support and case management in the Student Affairs office, a position Maestas said provides individualized outreach and support to students referred to the Student Affairs office by faculty, staff, family members or fellow students. These referrals broadly come from people who show concern with a student’s well-being, Maestas said, including their emotional and psychological wellness.

The peer-based HOPE @ CAPS team, meanwhile, aims to destigmatize mental health on campus and help connect other students to CAPS and other mental health services. According to their website, the peer educators provide drop-in listening hours around campus and work toward developing and implementing outreach events.

Part of the challenge, Girod told the Journal-World earlier this year, is simply getting the word out. It’s a problem he’s experienced as a physician and surgeon in the health care world, he said, as well as a college administrator looking to better publicize the variety of services — not just mental health-based — available to students.

“While you may have services available, people don’t know it,” Girod said, and the challenge is “how you put people in touch with those in a big, complicated place like this.”


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