UT expert explains why more college students are seeking mental health services

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – The number of students turning to mental health services offered at their college or university is growing around the country, including the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

The UTK Student Counseling Center served 2,600 students and booked 14,000 appointments last year. In the last five years, the the center reported a 50% increase in the number of students using their services.

UT Director of Student Counseling Paul McAnear cited several theories of his own, and of research, that point at many reasons for the increase.

Social media. Social media frequently shows users disaster, violence and narratives that make the world feel more dangerous. McAnear cited other theories that show users are given unrealistic expectations for their lives after being subjected countless images of effortless perfection.

Coping skills. Overly-protective parenting can lead to reduced coping skills, and make it more difficult for a student to adapt to college life.

Biology. The brain is still developing in college-aged students. Thus students are at greater risk for issues like depression or anxiety, because they don’t have the same coping skills they’ll acquire in 10 years. Mental health disorders also often emerge in the 18-24 age range of life.

Increase in outreach efforts. Time and money have gone into making students aware of the services available at UT, according to McAnear. “In many ways this is the outcome we were looking for,” he said.

The influx. The counseling center added four permanent positions and one internship position in the last five years, expanded group services to see more students in a similar amount of time, started workshops online, self-help programs, stress management presentations, and for a more proactive approach to tackling mental health, hosted activities across campus.

They’ve added room in their scheduling for more rapid access appointments — those are primarily students walking-in, with crisis situations. This impacts the center’s ability to book appointments for ongoing treatment.

In years prior, a client would be seen an average of seven sessions. Now, that average sits around four to five.

“We used to see maybe 35 people a week through our drop-in hours. Now we’re seeing more like 100-110 a week,” he said.

The center, McAnear noted, also has a “robust” suicide prevention and training program to help identify students in need.

Some efforts are less tangible, involving the culture of campus. McAnear said there have been strides to create a campus environment that is more supportive and inclusive, and makes students feel more included.
He believes they’ve reduced the stigma around mental health.

“We’ve done an enormous amount of work to try to make sure students in need are getting the help they need,” he said.

McAnear doesn’t believe this generation of students is fundamentally different than previous generations. One difference he sees is a greater willingness to seek help for coping challenges, whereas he believes “30-40 years ago, people were more hesitant to seek mental health services, even when they needed it.”

He sees the willingness to ask for help as a positive.

“About 45% of the students we see in the counseling center will endorse some level of suicidal thoughts,” McAnear said. “That doesn’t mean they’re in immediate risk, but they’ve had those kinds of thoughts. What that suggest to me students coming into the center are feeling, at least at times pretty hopeless, pretty desperate and looking for some way to cope more effectively.”

The University of Tennessee System is hosting a summit Friday in Nashville aimed at discussing mental health on their campuses around the state. More than 100 professions from their institutions will meet to discuss ways to improve mental health and wellness for students, and work to find ways to “destigmatize mental illness.”

For students experiencing a mental health emergency, the counseling center offers a 24-hour emergency hotline 974-HELP.

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