Mental health resources for SPU students

Experts are using terms such as “crisis” and “epidemic” to characterize the steep rise in mental health issues they are seeing among college students in recent years.

According to 2019 surveys conducted by the American College Health Association, 60% of college respondents reported feeling overwhelming anxiety, while another 40% reported experiencing depression to the extent that they had difficulty functioning.

Along with mood disturbances, other common mental health issues among college students include addiction, disordered eating, and suicidal ideation. An estimated 1 in 3 students met the criteria for a clinically significant mental health problem even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Appointments at campus counseling centers run parallel to these statistics. In fact, between 2009 and 2015, the growth rate of appointments was six times greater than that of institutional enrollments, and a colossal 88% of counseling centers nationwide reported an increase in students seeking treatment in this period.

There are multiple theories for the upward trajectory of mental health issues among young adults today. Some lay the blame on social media, which can create false images of perfection and magnify feelings of insecurity and inferiority. Others look at the isolating effects of technology, which can replace in-person, communal interactions. Experts cite helicopter parenting; unreasonably high expectations for young adults; COVID-19 quarantines; or even a steady decrease in the stigma that used to surround mental health problems so that young adults now feel increasingly free to seek professional help.

So is there an increasing prevalence of mental health problems among young adults or a steady decrease in stigma?

Sharon Barr-Jeffrey, director of the SPU Student Counseling Center, believes it’s not necessarily one or the other. “The numbers on the rise often get identified as college students or teenagers, but I think the general population is experiencing more anxiety and stress than in the past — and also more openness to professional help,” she said. “I do think there is a felt pressure on our young people that other generations did not have.”

So is there an increasing prevalence of mental health problems among young adults or a steady decrease in stigma?

Although high levels of stress likely affect incoming students before attending college, they may not have felt comfortable telling their parents they need help. “Coming to college, they can autonomously seek out mental health care at no cost,” she said.

Since Barr-Jeffrey began her work at SPU’s counseling center in 2010, each year has more students seeking treatment than the last. In general, 25% of the student body comes in annually. However, when the pandemic forced the University to make the swift transition to remote settings, those numbers plummeted. Rather than their typical 20 to 30 weekly intakes, the department suddenly had only one to three students seeking help in a given week.

Barr-Jeffrey and her colleagues quickly adapted their operations. In addition to adopting a telehealth format, the center did an overhaul of its website and added brand new sections on coping with COVID-19. The center started an Instagram page and hired a student to manage it. They began offering a regular timeslot called, “Let’s Talk,” where students can virtually drop-in to speak with a counselor for a few minutes, and they initiated a weekly series of workshops entitled, “Mental Health Hacks,” that primarily focuses on how to manage a full range of emotions.

Altogether, the center took on close to 40 outreach opportunities, ranging from virtual visits with university clubs to guest lectures in classes. (In the year prior to the pandemic, the center only did 12).

In addition to developing these new resources, the center continued offering its regular services, including an open house during orientation, same-day crisis/walk-in appointments, individual counseling, group therapy, nutritional counseling, referrals, education, and more. However, the range of mental health resources available at SPU extends far beyond the Student Counseling Center.

According to Dean of Students for Community Life Chuck Strawn, numerous departments play a role — from the University Ministries Office, to the Residence Life Coordinators with graduate degrees, to the incredibly caring administrative staff.

“One of the nice things about being at a smaller institution is that students have that one-on-one connection with faculty who are at a place like this because they want to be involved in students’ lives more than just in the curricular spaces,” Strawn said.

“One of the nice things about being at a smaller institution is that students have that one-on-one connection with faculty who are at a place like this because they want to be involved in students’ lives more than just in the curricular spaces.”

Strawn also chairs the student support team, which provides appropriate and timely interventions for students who find themselves in crisis. Concerned parents, peers, or staff members are all welcome to reach out for support on a student’s behalf by submitting an intervention alert form online.

His team also works alongside student leaders, which will include peer academic counselors and peer career advisors for the first time this year. Another new adjustment to student life involves organizing housing by class.

Strawn cautions students and parents against feeling put off or fearful of such changes. “Change is normal,” he said, and that includes organizational, structural, and cultural change. “If you’re not changing, you’re dying.” He also believes that it’s developmentally normal for college students to experience mental health issues, even under the most ideal of circumstances.

Even though HIPAA prohibits parents from gaining access to their children’s records, Strawn and Barr-Jeffrey both believe parents can assume the powerful role of encouragers. “There are lots and lots of mental health resources available to your student, but that is something they have to step into,” Strawn said. “We can’t do everything for them, but we can certainly do everything we can make sure they have the resources they need.”

Tips for Parents of College Students:

  1. Encourage your student to get connected with SPU’s mental health resources early, even if they don’t need to utilize them yet. A simple first step is to follow the Student Counseling Center on Instagram.
  2. If you have a serious concern for your student, fill out an intervention alert form online. This is an immediate way to alert care teams who can offer help.
  3. Know that you’re not alone. Engage with other parents of students and make sure you’re getting the social support you need.



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