May 13, 2015

UConn Clinics Struggled To Meet Mental Health Needs Of Students

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During her years at the University of Connecticut, Naomi Adler suffered such severe depression that sometimes, she couldn’t get out of bed to go to class.

But students like her could not always receive prompt treatment at the campus clinic.

“They need to be able to get people help faster,” said Adler, a May graduate from Kent. “I’ve called up and been told I have to wait even two months, and it’s like, ‘I need help now.’”

All three departments that treat a growing number of UConn students for mental health counseling on the Storrs campus said they have struggled this academic year to meet the demand for services.

Students seeking treatment at UConn’s largest clinic, Counseling and Mental Health Services, often faced a two-week wait for treatment due to a lack of available appointments, Elizabeth Cracco, the clinic’s director, said.

The number of students who received mental health counseling at Cracco’s clinic rose 21 percent during the 2013-14 school year, and she projected another 15 percent increase for the school year that ended May 10. There are round-the-clock services for students in crisis, but Cracco said there are “too many patients, not enough staffing.”

Naomi Adler of Kent.

Matthew Zabierek Photo

Naomi Adler of Kent.

The Humphrey Clinic and the psychology department’s Psychological Services – the two other on-campus counseling centers – were also full this year. They stopped taking referrals of students waiting for treatment at Cracco’s clinic, Humphrey Clinic director Denise Parent and Psychological Services director Marianne Barton said.

Cracco hired two new clinicians this school year, but the clinic is “still overwhelmed.”

The clinic has started hiring per diem therapists for the peak months of April and November, Cracco said. It has also referred students to local counselors and started holding group therapy sessions.

Many college counseling centers across the nation are dealing with a rising demand for treatment, said David Reetz, survey coordinator for the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors.

Due to the growing need, 31 percent of center directors reported having to place students on a wait list due to a lack of appointments while 50 percent reported having to limit the number of sessions per client, according to Reetz’s association.

“The rise has been a growing problem for years now,” Reetz said. “I would say it’s reached a boiling point.”

Rising Pressure on Students

Mirroring that national trend, the percentage of UConn undergraduate and graduate students seeking counseling on the Storrs campus rose from 4.38 percent in 2006-07 to 6.19 percent last year, with depression and anxiety as the most prevalent diagnoses.

UConn students reported feeling very sad, very lonely or exhausted in higher percentages than the national average. In fact, 16.8 percent of UConn students reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function, compared to the 10.1 percent national average.

Parent in part blames UConn’s large size and increasing academic rigor.

“I just think UConn is becoming an increasingly competitive and demanding school and I think students are starting to feel the effects of that,” Parent said.

UConn_400pxIn 2014, 94 percent of 275 college counseling directors reported an increase in students with severe psychological problems, according to the National Survey of College Counseling Centers. Anxiety is the fastest-rising diagnosis on campuses nationwide. The percentage of students who sought help for anxiety rose from 37 percent in 2009 to 46 percent in 2013, according to Reetz’s association.

Reetz attributed much of the rise to the constant information-sharing that new technology allows, which he said makes people more aware of tragedies and threats.

“We just live in a more anxious society these days,” Reetz said.

Social networking adds to the stress on students, said recent UConn graduate Abigail Viner of Stratford, a member of Active Minds, a student group that encourages the discussion of mental illness.

“You can’t really unplug from that and I think it’s a big stressor because it’s constant stimulation,” Viner said.

Other students said they feel financial pressure.

“We’re get­ting out of col­lege and fac­ing the real­ity that we might not even get jobs, and tuition is increasing all the time,” said UConn graduate student Emily Bramande of East Hartford, who has been diagnosed with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. “We’re being put in further and further debt without even the certainty that we’re even going to be able to get a job and pay it off at the end.”

It’s Complicated

Some UConn students who have sought counseling say they have faced a stigma among classmates and even faculty members.

Elizabeth Cracco, director of Counseling and Mental Health Services.

Photo Courtesy of UConn.

Elizabeth Cracco, director of Counseling and Mental Health Services.

“One of the main stigmas is that once a person is diagnosed with a mental illness, they are their mental illness,” Viner said.

Viner said mental health problems should be viewed the same way as physical health.

“Someone can be born with diabetes and that’s accepted, whereas someone born with psychosis caused by a chemical imbalance is not,” she said.

Adler said that she has friends who know that they could benefit from counseling but don’t seek help because they fear being labeled as “crazy.”

Students said many professors raised in an era that was less aware of mental illness lack the understanding to communicate with students who are struggling.

“For older generations, that stigma is really great and that affects how they look at you,” Bramande said.

Adler also said the mental health training that RAs receive is lacking. When students are struggling, RAs are supposed to call their hall directors.

“That’s not always the best thing,” Adler said. “Sometimes you just want to get it off your chest and not fear the repercussions of being sent to the hospital.”

UConn provides faculty members and RAs with training and access to counselors in a crisis, Cracco and other officials said.

More training would be helpful, Adler said, but sometimes going “by-the-book” isn’t enough.

“A book or paper may say one thing, but real life isn’t necessarily black and white,“ Adler said. “It’s complicated.”

Matthew Zabierek, of Pittsburgh, is a senior majoring in journalism and psychology at UConn.

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