BLACKSBURG — At first glance, the numbers are shocking.
The volume of students seeking counseling from Virginia Tech’s Cook Counseling Center has grown 43% in the last five years while enrollment is up less than 10%. An estimated 17% of students are on some type of psychotropic medication to treat mental health issues. And 18% of students during the 2017-18 school year reported a need for mental health counseling.
Virginia Tech’s number of students seeking counseling, however, is actually lower than the national average. As universities adjust to Generation Z, the group of students following millennials, school officials across the country face new challenges in providing mental health support for young people.
It’s a staggering challenge. The Chronicle of Higher Education estimates about 80% of Generation Z students have mild to moderate anxiety or depression.
And as a record number of students in Blacksburg gets settled in for the fall semester, the university is working to improve the mental health services available to them on campus.
This fall, Tech is kicking off a multipronged mental health initiative designed to make sure that its students can succeed in a time when more and more young people are struggling with their mental health.
The initiative comes from Provost Cyril Clarke, who put together a task force to examine mental health services at Tech. The task force published its findings in March and Clarke presented them to the school’s board of visitors in June.
Chris Wise, assistant vice president for Student Affairs, said the task force met 15 times over 18 weeks. The group gathered data and research from various sources and used it to form the report, he said.
Executing the ideas in the report will be up to Chris Flynn, long-time director of Tech’s Cook Counseling Center who has taken on a new role as executive director of Mental Health Initiatives.
The point of his new position will be to break down barriers and improve the likelihood of a student successfully completing their schooling and getting a degree, he said.
“I believe that if a student is admitted here then they have the intellectual capability to be successful,” Flynn said. “It’s the other things that get in the way of them being successful, so what do we do to support them?”
What Virginia Tech is facing
Mass shootings. Political divisiveness. Climate change.
The world is a scary place and the internet is spreading those horrors to college students, said Nance Roy, chief clinical officer of The Jed Foundation, an independent organization that studies and advocates for mental health services for young people.
Global challenges’ proliferation in the news is likely playing some role in making American college students more anxious as they are able to follow every development to the moment online.
It’s far different from when she went to college, she said, and young people would occasionally watch the news in the evenings.
“We had a half hour of trauma and that’s it,” she said.
But beyond general anxiety from current events, students are facing other unique challenges, she said.
It’s unknown exactly where that rise in anxiety and depression is coming from, said Flynn of Tech.
Theories about increased smartphone screen time and other nexuses abound. However, Flynn said, something that’s definitely contributing is a rise in seeking help and a slow erasure of stigma surrounding mental health services.
According to the Healthy Minds Study, which analyzed survey data from a number of schools across the country, the percentage of students who think most people would think less of others for seeking mental health services has dropped from 64% to 46% between 2007 and 2017.
At Tech, that’s definitely the case, Flynn said.
Knowing the numbers is critical to finding solutions, said task force member Laura Hungerford, head of Tech’s Department of Population Health Sciences.
The task force relied on numbers like the 43% growth in students seeking mental health services, the 18% of students who have sought mental health counseling and the 16% who have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder to make recommendations.
Analyzing similar data again and over time will be crucial to making sure Tech students are taking care of their mental health and ultimately will succeed, Hungerford said.
“A lot of places, people have a lot of good ideas but it’s important to know what’s working,” she said. “We want to have the ability to say that.”
Increasing access to counseling
Charlotte Selbo isn’t afraid to admit she needed help in February 2017.
So the Tech graduate student in public health turned to Cook Counseling Center for a psychiatric screening appointment. She said she was told nothing was available until May.
That was unacceptable, Selbo said. Today, she said, her situation has improved and she’s found help outside the university. But “what if” scenarios play out in her mind.
“This could be a problem for all students,” she said.
Wait times are the chief concern of students who visit the counseling center, according to the task force report.
Flynn says he doesn’t blame students for that concern. Adding counselors, doctors and other services are an effort to reduce wait times. And Tech has done just that. Since 2015 the school has added 12 full-time equivalent counselors, and has more than 40 mental health practitioners total.
Wise said his goal is to keep the number of counselors on the low end of the International Association of Counseling Services ratio, which recommends one counselor for every 1,000 to 1,500 students at an institution.
Another goal is to embed counselors in academic units.
One place where that’s already occurring is in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Every weekday, counselors are available to students there. Wise said this fall his goal is to embed some counselors in various colleges across campus, with a long-term desire to have mental health professionals embedded in every college.
That way, when a student says something to an adviser or professor, that person can take them to see the counselor immediately. The counselor could also provide mental health training for educators, Wise said.
“We want to train faculty and staff to work with their students,” Flynn said. “Obviously, faculty are experts in their field and some of them may have expertise in mental health and some may not. How do we work with them to recognize students in distress?”
Solutions outside counseling
According to Roy, the JED Foundation expert, one of the best ways to improve the overall well-being of students is to look at creative ways to administer mental health services.
That’s exactly what Tech aims to do.
“We’re not going to end the stream of students going to the Cook Counseling Center,” Wise said. “But we do want to impact it.”
Again the university will take ideas from its vet school and look at other ways to help students, Wise said.
The vet school regularly sends a mental health newsletter to students and has also gone away from letter grades to a pass/fail system in its core curriculum, Hungerford said.
Getting rid of letter grades across the university isn’t necessarily the best way to help students, but everyone at the school needs to be thinking of creative ways to help students who might be struggling with their mental health, she said.
There will also be efforts to study what about the classroom raises anxiety and depression and how the university can fight it.
Tech will largely lean on an awareness campaign this semester and beyond to highlight mental health issues. The details aren’t quite figured out, said Flynn. That will be an important part of his job.
But the ultimate goal is clear.
“I would like to see everybody on this campus has an awareness that if you have a need, you know where resources are, what are those resources, so it’s not just Cook but it’s all of this,” he said. “That every faculty or staff member knows what to do when a student walks into their office in distress… they know where to refer them.”
What’s happening beyond campus
Some of the mental health challenges on campus are spilling out into the community, though there hasn’t been a truly significant uptick yet, according to New River Valley Community Services.
Many of the students who the agency sees are those in extreme crisis, said Melanie Adkins, NRVCS’ clinical services director.
“It could certainly be someone who has suicidal thoughts or had a suicide attempt,” Adkins said. “Conversely it could be someone who is making statements about hurting other people. It could be somebody who struggles with a mental illness and their symptoms have become so significant that they can’t maintain their basic needs.”
During the spring semester of 2019, there were 40 Virginia Tech students hospitalized under a temporary detention order. In all of 2018, 49 were hospitalized under such an order. This means there will likely be a slight rise for this year, said Patrick Halpern, crisis intervention team coordinator for the agency.
Halpern said 29 were hospitalized voluntarily in the spring of 2019, while 44 checked themselves in voluntarily the previous year.
The numbers of students in crisis has remained relatively stable after seeing a surge in the wake of the April 16, 2007, mass shooting at Virginia Tech, Halpern said.
Extra students facing more mental health challenges won’t necessarily create extra issues for the agency he and Adkins said.
“Our confidence is buttressed by the relationships we have with local law enforcement, with Virginia Tech, with Cook Counseling Center,” Halpern said. “We’ve been through a lot together. And one of the many things that grew out of those experiences grew a dedication to serve our community and help each other.”
Tech mental health leaders have lofty goals for helping students moving forward.
Sure, there are concrete things like keeping the counseling center staffed and improving access to mental health services. But beyond that, there’s a need for awareness and teamwork throughout campus and the community.
Flynn said he wants students to improve themselves, seek help when they need it and make sure everyone on campus works together toward improving mental wellness.
And Hungerford said she hopes that the graduates and people who leave Blacksburg take lessons about how to build each other up with them. The world can be a difficult place, but with the right conversations and awareness of mental health challenges, she said, those who go through Tech can help everyone by building a better community in work and beyond.
“Our graduates will improve your whole office, your whole company because they understand how to help each other in this area,” she said.
Student success is the top priority for everyone involved in trying to tackle the problem, Wise, who oversaw the task force, said.
“We want to give everyone an opportunity to be successful,” Wise said. “What needs are, are different from one student to the next individually. But there are some students that need some support from a counseling center or a mental health initiative.
“We want to provide them with the tools to be successful and the tools they need for their life.”