Annual report examines college mental health trends

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Mental health treatment in higher education is a complex practice that is evolving in response to a growing demand for services. Treatment provided by counseling centers is effective in decreasing student’s distress and has been found to be comparable to specialized treatments examined in randomized clinical trials. At the same time, rapidly rising demand can lead to sudden or arbitrary policy changes, such as rigid treatment limits, that can negatively impact the potential benefits of effective treatment.

“Colleges and universities are currently grappling with the question of how to respond effectively and efficiently to the rather sudden and dramatic increase in demand for mental health services nationwide,” said Ben Locke, senior director of Penn State Counseling and Psychological Services, and executive director of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH). “This growing demand includes the full range of risk, need, diagnoses, and many other factors that can make it difficult to define policies that work. Sometimes, the pressure to identify short-term solutions under pressure can result in overly-simplified or rigid approaches that inhibit the potential positive effects that counseling center treatment has to offer.”

While the increasing demand for mental health services and related solutions are very real, findings in the recently released CCMH Annual Report suggest that in order to adequately meet rising demand with limited resources, college and university counseling centers must strive to align their policy and funding decisions with institutional priorities (e.g. supporting survivors of sexual assault or managing suicidality in students of concern) in order to provide the most effective care.

In addition, the report said that addressing the growing prevalence of anxiety and depression, the only presenting concerns that have demonstrated a clear growth trend over the last four years, will require colleges and universities to work with their counseling centers to develop a continuum of services to educate and support both the general student body and those seeking treatment.

“While counseling centers treat dozens and dozens of complex mental health concerns, the data increasingly suggest that the demand created by anxiety and depression dramatically exceeds all other concerns — and is continuing to grow," said Locke. "Effectively addressing this trend will require a range of large-scale efforts aimed at helping the general student body successfully navigate the developmentally normative experiences of anxiety and depression common to this age group while also making more intensive treatment available to those in need.

These are some of the findings in the 2017 CCMH Annual Report — the largest and most comprehensive report on college students seeking mental health treatment to date. A sample of other findings include:

— Counseling centers are managing an increase in the number of students seeking treatment who represent “threat-to-self” for the seventh year in a row.

— Length of treatment in counseling centers varies based on the student’s presenting concerns. Some less-common presenting concerns (e.g. supporting survivors of sexual assault, students with suicidal ideation, and gender and sexual minority students) are associated with longer-term treatment.

— Anxiety and depression continue to be the most common presenting concerns for college students, as identified by counseling center staff, and are the only presenting concerns that have demonstrated a growth trend over the last four years.

The 2017 Annual Report describes 161,014 unique college students seeking mental health treatment; 3,592 clinicians; and more than 1,255,052 appointments from the 2016-17 academic year. This is the ninth year the report has been produced.

The Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State (CCMH) is an international practice-research network of nearly 500 colleges and universities focused on understanding and describing college student mental health. CCMH collects and analyses de-identified data on college students seeking mental health treatment at colleges and universities in the U.S. and internationally.

The full report can be found online at http://ccmh.psu.edu/publications/.

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Last Updated January 16, 2018