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Updated 11:00 AM March 6, 2006




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Increase in student counseling leads to plans for new center

The demands for student counseling keep growing for Big Ten counseling centers staff, who gathered at U-M Feb. 22-24 for updates on innovations, which include the planned creation of a national research center on student mental health.

The Center for the Study of College Student Mental Health—to be established at Penn State University within 12-18 months—will provide better information to individual university counseling centers which face rising case loads and liability concerns stemming from a range of student mental health treatment issues.

The center would collect research data to advance study and understanding of college students' mental health issues, organizers say, as college and university centers around the country have reported 20-50 percent increases in the number of students coming to their centers, said Todd Sevig, U-M director of Counseling and Psychological Services.

"Every counseling center is grappling with, and striving to meet, rather dramatic increased needs from students and we shared with each other how we all are meeting those needs," Sevig said.

Why the increases? Sevig said this generation of college students is more familiar with receiving psychological help, following increased attention paid to mental health in high schools, an overall decrease in stigma related to psychological help, even though stigma still remains especially for certain identity groups, safer medications to treat psychiatric symptoms, and educational efforts on the part of universities to encourage students to get help.

College suicides last were studied from 1980-90 by Big Ten counseling centers, which recorded 261 student suicides during that time at Big Ten schools. "We don't know what has been going on with the rate of (student) suicide over the last 15 years," said Paul Joffe, clinical psychologist at the University of Illinois Counseling Center since 1982 and head of that school's suicide-prevention program, on hand for the U-M conference.

"It is generally estimated that 1,100 college students committed suicide during the previous academic year," Joffe wrote last year in a paper co-written with Sam Cochran of the University of Iowa. "The operative term here is 'estimated,'" they continued. "Since there is no private or government organization that keeps track of suicide deaths among college students, we have no alternative but to substitute a rough estimate for the actual number."

Ben Locke, assistant director at the Penn State Center for Counseling and Psychological Services, headed a conference session on the proposed center. "Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among those 20-24; suicide rates peak with the college age group," he said. The plan is to create a national network of cooperating centers to provide data on a range of mental health concerns, which could be accessed by staff at other universities. "We could finally get these reports out to everybody who needs them," Locke said, adding 50 universities so far have expressed interest in contributing information to the proposed center.

Johanna Soet, director of the U-M Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, asked Locke where he planned to seek funding. Locke said national grants could be sought, along with contributions from contributing universities and colleges.

"The profession really needs coordinated research efforts to increase our understanding of what is going on nationally," Sevig said. "This new center started by Dr. Dennis Heitzmann (Penn State) and being supported by the Association of University and College Counseling Center Directors will become the main clearinghouse of data for increasing the understanding of college student mental health issues.

"This effort will add research with high-quality data, which will inform and increase the depth and breadth of these areas for counseling centers. This effort also fits nicely with the commitment the Big 10 counseling centers have to research."

Sevig added that the proposed center will employ a series of automated processes to pool standardized data from the network on a regular interval and convert that data into reports on the current trends of college student mental health for providers, administrators and the public.

"There are some incredibly complex painful stories involving students' psychological lives that are happening every day on this campus," Sevig said. "And in the same breath what I'm struck by is the resilience of college students. I'm struck by how many professional resources there are on campus, from faculty and staff to residence hall staff; there are so many things to help students.

"What college and university counseling centers need to do is continue to grow in our understanding of these complexities of college student mental health."

The conference theme was "Diverse Communities: Enhancing Strengths, Honoring Connections." Other sessions included a welcome from President Mary Sue Coleman and the topics "African American Male College Students and their Mental Health Needs," "Resolving Test Anxiety with a Model of Opposing Mind-States," and "Eating Disorders, Daughters, and Fathers: Honoring the Complexities and Challenges of these Connections."

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