• 25 Investigates: Mass. universities struggle to meet mental health demands

    By: Eric Rasmussen , Miranda Suarez

    Updated:

    The scope of mental health treatment at colleges and universities in Massachusetts varies widely from institution to institution, leaving some on-campus counseling centers unequipped to handle rising demand from struggling students, 25 Investigates found.

    25 Investigates contacted 50 schools statewide over the course of three months, and 19 of them -- including major institutions like Harvard -- provided no response.

    The survey, which also gathered information from university websites, shows big differences in how many counselors each school keeps on staff, as well as other variations that some students say are keeping them from getting the help they need.

    A report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State shows demand for counseling services at colleges shot up 30 to 40 percent from 2010 to 2015, far outpacing enrollment, which rose only 5 percent in that time period.

    “Rapidly rising demand, paired with risk and flat funding, seem to be making it increasingly difficult for counseling centers to maintain treatment capacity for students who need it,” the report says

    The problem is especially grave considering the fact 1,400 college students died by suicide in the U.S. in 2016, as noted in a recent presentation to the UMass Board of Trustees

    Counseling centers deal with the deluge of students in different ways, according to the CCMH report. Some have long waits for initial appointments or impose weeks-long intervals between counseling sessions, with centers in Massachusetts among them.

    REACHING OUT FOR HELP -- AND NOT FINDING IT

    Kavita Singh, 22, was in her second year at Northeastern when she said she started isolating herself, skipping class, and questioning her very existence.

    “I didn’t know how to deal with it, so I went to the university,” said Singh.

    Singh said she has an anxiety disorder, and getting help from Northeastern’s University Health and Counseling Services was a struggle.

    “On average, each time I called them to schedule an appointment, it would take a month,” she said. “It was only until I was a threat to myself that the university expressed concern for me.”

    Northeastern did not respond to repeated requests for an on-camera interview about mental health services on campus.

    A spokesperson confirmed the school has 15 mental health professionals on staff, meaning there is one counselor for about every 1,700 students, according to the school's most recent enrollment numbers.

    The spokesperson also said Northeastern does not limit the amount of counseling sessions a student can have, which is not true at other institutions in Massachusetts.

    The review by 25 Investigates found six schools in the state place specific caps on the number of counseling sessions available to students. Clark University decided to cap students at six sessions per semester after demand for services soared by almost 50 percent between 2013 and 2015, according to Clark's counseling center’s website.

    “While we are glad that students are utilizing our services more for help, we were finding that we couldn't accommodate everyone in a timely manner. So we had to make a decision – have people wait a long time to get in or limit the frequency of their sessions,” the website says.

    Other colleges and universities have no specific session limit but offer “brief” or “short-term” counseling. Several schools in both categories, including Clark, say there are exceptions to these rules.

    DEALING WITH THE "TSUNAMI"

    Dr. Chris Flynn is the head of Virginia Tech’s counseling center and the president of the International Association of Counseling Services, an organization that sets standards for college centers and accredits about 200 of them.

    “We're sort of still in the middle of this -- what feels like a tsunami,” he said, describing the huge surge in demand for counseling appointments. "But (it's) a positive thing. It's a great thing that students are seeking out counseling services on a college campus."

    And when it comes to dealing with the tsunami, he said, there is no one solution for every school.

    "At what point do you have adequate services to serve every student that may attend your university?" said Flynn.

    In Massachusetts, Fitchburg State University's counseling center isn't closing its doors to the tsunami -- it's leaving them open for as long as possible, offering unlimited free counseling to all students.

    Dr. Robert Hynes has been in charge there for 17 years, and he said more students are coming in for help than ever before.

    "I don't think anyone has been able to pinpoint why we're seeing such a dramatic increase," said Hynes, who theorized reduced stigma and greater access to counseling before people go to college could partly explain why more students are seeking out help on campus.

    Hynes called unlimited counseling a way to keep students in school, especially for the students who cannot afford mental health care off campus.

    "Those students tend to do an awful lot better when we can see them 10 times a year, 15 times a year, versus other models where you see them maybe 5 or 6 sessions and then you're forced to make a referral out," said Hynes. "If we did not engage in counseling with our students, as well as other student support services, then we would have a fairly substantial proportion of students who would not be successful here."

    Even if one of Hynes' students could pay for an outside counselor, he said, the City of Fitchburg has far fewer mental health providers than Boston.

    One of the challenges of Hynes' job is to get in touch with the students who may never come to the counseling center on their own, which is why he leads gatekeeper trainings.

    Gatekeepers are people who come into contact with students every day, such as resident assistants and other university staff members. The training teaches them about the warning signs of suicide and simple interventions they can make.

    “The most acutely at risk people in our community may never knock on the door of a mental health professional o a medical health professional or somebody that can help,” Hynes said. “What we need are lots of deputies out there.”

    Professors make up one group that comes into contact with students daily, and many schools have trainings available for them, but only Massachusetts Maritime Academy told 25 Investigates that training is mandatory.

    A LACK OF CARE, AND THE CONSEQUENCES

    Kavita Singh eventually got the help she needed from an outside counselor. Now, she's part of a student group advocating for more counselors at Northeastern and pressing the university to take more responsibility for the mental health of its students.

    The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently found MIT was not negligent in the 2009 suicide of a grad student, but said universities do have a responsibility to prevent suicides in some cases.

    Providing accessible mental health services is part of the deal universities make with their paying students, Singh said.

    “Students deserve care,” she said. “They're spending their money. Their tuition is 60 thousand dollars a year. It shouldn't be hard for the school to provide.”

    View school-by-school responses here.

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