November 1st, 2015

Colleges strive to improve psychological services

The number one problem Connecticut College students come to Student Counseling Services seeking help for is anxiety followed by depression, according to its director, psychologist Janet D. Spoltore, Ph.D. That is consistent with the top two presenting concerns of students nationally as reported by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State.

So students at the private liberal arts college in New London, Conn., are not any different from their peers elsewhere. But Connecticut’s efforts to make mental health services accessible and de-stigmatize help-seeking have earned national attention.

Connecticut College was the only New England higher education institution honored in this year’s Active Minds Healthiest College Campus Awards announced Sept. 29.

The school received honorable mention from the national non-profit organization focused on increasing students’ awareness of mental health issues.

Fifty-one percent of Connecticut College’s Class of 2015 sought mental health services from the school during their undergraduate tenure, a figure Spoltore is happy to share.

“It’s a very positive number. It shows that our services are accessible, and students recognize that. It’s a lot of outreach that we do,” Spoltore said.

The college has launched several initiatives to foster collaboration across the campus community to promote Student Counseling Services, which has five counselors on staff.

They include a CARE (Concern-Assessment-Response-Evaluation) team comprised of deans, faculty and staff who meet regularly to discuss students of concern and share information about how to help them.

Counselors lead workshops to educate athletic coaches and others on how to identify students in distress and refer them for services.

The Connecticut College Campus Community Coalition, a group of representatives from area health and social service agencies, community representatives and college students and staff, have worked together to identify suicide risk settings in the area.

Their work led to the April 2014 installation of a sign at the base of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge pedestrian walkway that lists the phone number of a suicide prevention lifeline.

“There are lots of people on the campus that care about you,” said Connecticut College senior Kate Rudolph, a 21-year-old double major in behavioral neuroscience and psychology from Marblehead, Mass..

She is co-president of the school’s Active Minds chapter and was a member of the Campus Community Coalition last year.

“At a lot of schools it’s kind of ‘Oh we don’t talk about this,’ but here we want people to know the resources that are available and that it’s okay to talk about it.”

No legal mandate requires any college or university to provide mental health services for students but schools recognize the importance of doing so because students perform better, said psychiatrist Victor Schwartz, M.D., who is medical director of the Jed Foundation, a New York City-based organization that works with colleges to prevent suicides.

“Schools are all over the place,” Schwartz said. “There are some schools that provide very, very little services and there’s some that are providing services that could match to any community mental health system.”

Non-residential schools, especially community colleges, tend to offer the least resources to students, Schwartz said, but even large public universities have dramatic differences in what help they offer.

The Jed Foundation has developed The Campus Program for schools to promote emotional well-being, enhance mental health programming, reduce substance abuse and prevent suicide.

About 100 schools have become members of The Campus Program, including Connecticut College.

Among the nine other New England schools that have joined is Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which was shaken last year by a cluster of student suicides, including two within the same week last March.

In September, MIT unveiled new initiatives and steps to strengthen its mental health and well-being programs, including the hiring of two new full-time psychologists and doubling the walk-in hours at its support services clinic.

Schwartz visited MIT for a half-day last spring and also had a lengthy telephone conference with administrators to review the organization and operation of its mental health services.

“It is a stressful environment but not so different from the stress level at other highly competitive elite schools.” Schwartz said of MIT. “My sense is that they’re doing a lot of really excellent programming and they‘re working very hard.”

MIT officials did not respond to a request for an interview.

Last spring, the school surveyed students using the University of Michigan’s Healthy Minds Study, a collection tool suggested by the Jed Foundation to make comparisons to other schools.

Twenty-eight percent of the MIT student body responded to questions about depression, anxiety, eating disorders, non-suicidal self-injury and suicidal ideation.

According to the university chancellor’s office, results showed about the same percentage of MIT students screened for depression, non-suicidal self-injury and suicidal ideation as in a national sample while fewer MIT students screened for anxiety and eating disorders.

Schwartz said there’s no evidence linking academic pressure to higher risk of suicide for undergraduates and suggested that MIT’s higher percentages of male students and international students may explain a higher suicide rate at the school.

“In fact, again focused on undergraduates, the evidence is stronger that relationship problems, family problems, other kinds of stressors are more frequently the proximate precipitant of a suicide than academic failure,” Schwartz said.

The high cost of a college education, competitive classes and over-involvement in extracurricular activities can intensify the stress that comes with emerging adulthood in a fast-paced world, Spoltore said.

“I think it’s very stressful to be a college student today,” added Rudolph, who juggles classes along with serving as an EMT and is in the middle of applying for graduate school to become a physician assistant. “As a student we’re more inclined to put pressure on ourselves now because it’s so competitive looking for a job or getting into graduate school. There’s so much emphasis on getting the good grades and doing well.”

Spoltore said 25 percent of Connecticut College’s student body received mental health services last year. “To be exact, that’s 467 students,” she said. Approximately 30 percent of them were male. (The student body is roughly 60 percent female, 40 percent male).

At the beginning of October, Connecticut College didn’t have a wait for a student who wanted to see a counselor, but it can take up to a week at certain times of the year, Spoltore said.

The Jed Foundation works with schools to get away from the medical model of a clinic with formal appointment procedures and promote outreach activities that meet students where they are at, such as walk-in counseling time during the evening in large dormitories or hosting psycho-educational sessions on study skills and time management.

“De-pathologize using the counseling services in ways that make it much easier for students to just go in there and not seem like it’s a big deal,” Schwartz explained. “While the care has to be medically competent, you want it to be as accessible and down to earth and unintimidating as you possibly can.”

Other schools that have joined The Campus Program include Boston University, Brandeis University, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Springfield College, Three Rivers Community College, University of Massachusetts-Boston, Wentworth Institute of Technology and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

By Janine Weisman

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