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Counseling Counts

December 2018

By Apryl Motley

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At the University of Richmond, increased counseling and mental health services are improving student retention and academic achievements.

More college students are taking advantage of campus counseling services, which, in turn, help them perform better academically. The most recent survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD)—a professional community that innovates, educates, and advocates for collegiate mental health—notes the correlation between the use of on-campus counseling services and improved student success.

According to the 2017 Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors Annual Survey, counseling services have a positive impact on academics; as measured by student self-reporting, 66.8 percent of clients reported that counseling services helped with their academic performance. Further, 65.2 percent said that counseling services helped them stay in school. (Read also “Handle With Care.”)

In recent years, more than 90 percent of college counseling centers have reported an increased use of their services, according to Peter LeViness, coordinator of the AUCCCD survey and director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at the University of Richmond (UR), Richmond, Va. “The major factor driving up demand for counseling services on our campus and others is the reduced stigma around mental health services, along with an increased willingness to seek out these services when needed,” LeViness says. “The biggest driver is not an epidemic of mental disorders. This generation of students is more willing to ask for help” if needed. During the past 15 years, the number of UR students seeking mental health services from CAPS has more than doubled.

“Increased use of our services is a good thing,” LeViness says, “and it’s paying positive dividends.” Like most campus counseling centers, CAPS routinely surveys students who use its services. This past year, when asked if they might not have been able to finish the semester without receiving CAPS services, 31 percent of students said “yes.” Similarly, 88 percent of the surveyed students indicated that counseling helped them function better personally, and 65 percent said that counseling helped them perform better academically.

By the same token, many campuses have experienced challenges in meeting the increased demand for services. “None of us knew the demand for services was going to shift so drastically,” explains LeViness. “Every campus is experiencing this shift from its own time frame. For us, it’s been pretty linear for the past 12 to 15 years. Enrollment at the university has been flat (approximately 3,800 full-time, degree-seeking students), but CAPS is seeing more than double the number of students we’ve seen in the past.”

Even with the increase in students seeking services, LeViness says that—based on the spring 2016 Healthy Minds Study (HMS), where more than 30 percent of the students at UR indicated that they think they needed mental health services in the last 12 months—he and his colleagues are only seeing about 20 percent of students on campus in a given year. Based at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, HMS is conducted by the Healthy Minds Network for Research on Adolescent and Young Adult Mental Health. Launched in 2007, this is an annual Web-based survey examining mental health, service utilization, and related issues among undergraduate and graduate students.

LeViness believes that there is an upper limit on the number of students who will seek mental health services on his campus in a given year and knows that CAPS has been fortunate to receive additional financial and human resources most years. However, he acknowledges that significant challenges may lie ahead for higher education institutions that want to expand their mental health services programs. He highlights three key areas to consider as your institution makes the case for investing in on-campus counseling services.

More Services, More Savings

“In general, the University of Richmond has been very responsive,” says LeViness of the financial resources allocated for CAPS. “We have received new resources almost every other year.” Overall, funding for CAPS has increased during his tenure, mostly in terms of staff positions, but also in terms of operating expenses. “We’ve gone from 3.2 staff in 2002 to now having seven full-time staff and two four-day-per-week staff,” LeViness notes.

Since its inception, the budget for CAPS has come under the university’s student development division. The offices within this division work collaboratively to create a dynamic campus community, offering services for healthy living and providing learning resources that build on the classroom experience. According to the operating budget summary posted on the university’s website, close to $22 million has been allocated for student services for 2018.

Most of these services, including those that CAPS offers, are provided to students at no additional cost. “We’ve never charged students, and there’s no plan to charge students,” LeViness says. “We don’t want to add additional fees onto those that students and their families are already paying. I’m not sure that they would use our services if they had to pay for them.”

At the same time, he acknowledges that lack of funding is one of the biggest challenges many of his colleagues face at other institutions. “‘There’s no money.’ That’s what I hear from other directors who have to establish wait lists, institute session limits, or refer students to off-campus resources,” LeViness says. “These are not best practices, but understandable practices that are put in place out of necessity.”

Although some institutions may be hesitant to invest financial resources in mental health services, or simply may not have resources to spare, research shows that making these investments now will pay off later.

In a September 2016 communication to his colleagues titled, “The Economic Case for Mental Health Services at University of Michigan,” Daniel Eisenberg, director, Healthy Minds Network for Research on Adolescent and Young Adult Mental Health, said that, “mental health problems, such as depression, are associated with a twofold increase in the risk of student departure from an institution. Thus, increasing the availability of evidence-based services or preventive programs can reduce this risk and increase student retention.” His e-mail continued with this example: “Suppose that clinical services at the University of Michigan were expanded to reach 1,000 of the students who currently have untreated mental health problems. We project this would lead to the retention of 8.5 [of these] students, who would have otherwise departed without graduating. This could save approximately $491,000 in tuition revenue for the institution. On average, providing high-quality mental health services to these students would cost less than $1 million per year.”

In the same communication, Eisenberg further noted that, according to HMS data, mental health is correlated with higher satisfaction in college and a higher reported likelihood of donating as a future graduate.

Functional Facilities

Along with availability of funding, gaining access to the appropriate facilities to offer mental health services to students can also be challenging. “Even if you have funding, you need space,” LeViness says. “It needs to be a comfortable, secure, private setting. Adequate group rooms are also needed, as groups are an important modality that can help expand the scope of available services.”

It’s becoming more common for parents to ask about the availability of mental health services, and sometimes they will request to see the setting in which these services are offered, LeViness notes. “Many parents expect private institutions to have the best services available if their students need mental health care.”

Some institutions have addressed the facilities challenge by embedding mental health counselors in departmental units. In 2016, for the first time, the University of Iowa, Iowa City, embedded therapists in the department of athletics and at the College of Dentistry and Dental Clinics. In a statement released by the university, Barry Schreier, director of university counseling services, noted that “the idea behind the ‘embedded model’ is to expand mental health services to students by partnering with other campus units that have identified a need and are able to fund a therapist at their location.”

Use the Data

As they do in so many areas of higher education, metrics can make the difference when advocating for mental health services on your campus. Most campus counseling centers are well positioned to track specific kinds of information through their intake forms without compromising student confidentiality.

“We’ve added different categories to our intake forms based on what the university wants to track,” LeViness says. “We have the ability to show links between CAPS and the University of Richmond’s strategic objectives.” For example, CAPS tracks it clients by race/ethnicity and found that about 35 percent of its clients last year were students of color (a higher percentage than the overall student population).

In general, being able to track specific demographic information and generate reports for your institution’s leadership will likely be a strong selling point as you advocate for maintaining or expanding mental health services on your campus.

What Lies Ahead?

The University of Richmond is continuing its efforts to have and maintain a healthy student body. “We plan to conduct the Healthy Minds Study again this fall,” says LeViness, “and the university recently joined the JED Campus program.” The initiative, sponsored by the Jed Foundation, is designed to guide schools through a collaborative process of building upon existing student mental health, substance abuse, and suicide prevention efforts.

In addition, UR has created a well-being task force charged with outlining a well-being strategic plan that will embed health and wellness within the campus culture. The university is also developing plans for a new well-being center—opening as early as fall 2020—that would house many of the health and wellness offices under one roof.

APRYL MOTLEY, Columbia, Md., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

Related Topics

Metrics can make the difference when advocating for mental health services on your campus.