Colleges Expand Their Reach to Address Mental Health Issues

By Brad Wolverton, The New York Times

February 21, 2019

Colleges are struggling to keep up with an increase in requests for mental health counseling. Many have hired additional staff members and are experimenting with new approaches to treatment.


When Elizabeth Gong-Guy was named director of U.C.L.A.’s counseling and psychological services in 2005, the university was providing mental health services to less than 10 percent of its students. A decade later, when she moved into a different role, as executive director of U.C.L.A. campus and student resilience, more than 20 percent were under the university’s care.

Seeing no end to the growth, U.C.L.A. became an early adopter of internet-based screenings and online mental health treatment. The university has also invested in “resilience peers” who are not licensed to provide counseling but who offer a release valve for stressed-out students.

As part of a major research study, U.C.L.A. students can enroll in a six- to eight-week online program that teaches skills to combat anxiety and depression, working alongside a trained peer. The university’s goal: finding the most effective interventions for the largest number of students as quickly as possible.

Nivi Ahlawat, a senior neuroscience major, tapped the university’s online resources to help her deal with an incident in her personal life. After using the program, she said she was encouraged to start a mindfulness practice and enroll in yoga and art classes to help reduce her anxiety. She has also served as a resilience peer, an experience that has influenced her career path.

“This program fundamentally changed who I am and how I approach my life,” said Ms. Ahlawat, who plans to pursue graduate work in genetic counseling. “I may not remember the structures of all the intermediates of the glycolysis pathway I learned in biochemistry class. But I’ll remember what I’ve learned about active listening, motivational interviewing and mindfulness intervention for the rest of my life.”


Kent State’s impetus to improve mental health services came from broad university mandates. The university, in Ohio, said it had added nine clinical staff positions across its eight campuses as part of a presidential push to emphasize student and staff mental health and wellness.

The university has provided mental health training to more than 700 students, faculty and staff members, and created programs to help populations that do not traditionally seek counseling. Those efforts helped Kent State win a “healthy campus award ” last year from Active Minds, a national advocacy group that supports mental health awareness and education.


Many students may not enjoy the benefits of therapy until they overcome more pressing obstacles, said Katy Troester-Trate, director of the health and wellness center at Jefferson Community College. The two-year institution in Watertown, N.Y., has many low-income and first-generation students, some of whom arrive on campus without basics like soap and toothpaste.

“If you can’t afford groceries or safe care for your children, it’s hard to work on higher level things,” said Ms. Troester-Trate, a licensed social worker who keeps snacks in her desk for students.

Her team has developed what she calls a “wraparound” model, providing an assortment of services outside of traditional talk therapy that help students address their overall well-being. Students can find many of those services at the college’s health and wellness center, which houses counseling offices alongside child-care assistance, a campus food pantry and more.

Miranda Santos, a 24-year-old single parent, sought help there last year after failing a nursing class and having to repeat it during a semester-long weekend program. She received vouchers to help pay for child care and a food basket at Thanksgiving. She graduated last fall, with a job at an opioid-treatment clinic.


The university, which has one of the nation’s largest counseling staffs, said it had added about 17 positions in the past three years. It now has 47 senior staff positions. The increase has come as university officials have sought to improve the response to sexual assaults following high-profile accounts of sexual abuse by a former university doctor.

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