Penn State hosts Center for the Study of College Student Mental Health

June 28, 2006

University Park, Pa. -- Undertaking an initiative unprecedented in the field of college student health care, Penn State will administer the new Center for the Study of College Student Mental Health (CSCSMH). Senior staff at Penn State's Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) recently announced the endeavor, which aims to create a nationwide data-sharing network of college and university counseling centers that will enable real-time tracking and analysis of the state of mental health among American students in higher education who seek mental health services.

"The center will address a critical gap in the research on college student mental health: the ability to accurately and routinely describe the state of university and college counseling centers, on a national level, as measured by standardized data," said Ben Locke, CAPS assistant director of research and technology and national coordinator of the CSCSMH effort.

"Outside of some end-of-year surveys that provide information about counseling centers or clientele, there has never been an effort that offers regular, recurrent, real-time information on the students that we serve," said Dennis Heitzmann, CAPS director and a past president of both the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD) and the International Association of Counseling Services. "Consequently, we will be able to track trends, outcomes and student reactions to major crises at the campus level and also at the national level."

A nationwide conference, hosted by CAPS in late April and attended by more than 70 directors and other leaders of college and university counseling centers, identified issues central to the management of the proposed center on behalf of hundreds of campus counseling centers across the country. High conference participation demonstrated directors' willingness to help guide the development of a nationally standardized software infrastructure, which will gather data nationally from participating counseling centers and convert it for use by clinicians, administrators, researchers and the public.

Locke said the response to the conference was overwhelmingly supportive. "The field is ready for this; people want to make it happen," he said.

According to Locke, the creators of Titanium Schedule -- counseling center management software used by more than 150 of the roughly 650 counseling centers that are members of the AUCCCD -- have committed to help create the infrastructure to standardize the process of data gathering, sharing and reporting. Long-term plans will strive to gather standardized data from any participating center regardless of the software used.

Creating such a vast, nationally unified network for data collection is not without its challenges. Locke points out that financial, personnel and technological constraints vary among institutions based on the size and student population of the university.

"Some counseling center directors not only serve as administrators but also input data and see clients, so the software network we create must be flexible enough to fit a wide range of needs," he explained.

This also extends to those centers' technological infrastructure. Some will be able to allow client-based data entry, particularly for intake purposes, via computer terminals or handheld devices. Others may need to rely on Scantron forms or handwritten surveys. What is key, however, is that the data is standardized in presentation and collection, so research based on the data is valid and generalizable.

Locke also emphasized that personal privacy is of the utmost significance, particularly as it pertains to Institutional Review Board research guidelines administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office for Human Research Protections. "It's critical to ensure clients' privacy and confidentiality, so any data that is gathered and shared will be stripped of all identifying information."

Initially, CSCSMH plans to issue automated reports on a routine basis, most likely following a semester schedule. Eventually, however, researchers may be able to request real-time data based on specific criteria, from focused timeframes as well as demographic and geographical cohorts. Because data will be collected continuously, a large, scientifically valuable data set will evolve that can be reused for many different research efforts. Additional possibilities include the ability to adjust and refine the infrastructure to collect study-specific data at the national level, ranging from basic survey research to a comparison of psychological treatments.

Heitzmann is optimistic that the national center will have multiple benefits for the Penn State community -- students, individual researchers and collaborative research partnerships -- but also for American higher education at large.

"Clearly, this effort projects Penn State University, and our center in particular, on the cutting edge of counseling center initiatives," he said. "We have always had a good reputation among our colleague institutions, and this will continue to promote that image. But better than that, it offers a vehicle through which we can better serve our students."

Heitzmann's colleagues at other institutions agree. "The funding and leadership offered by Penn State has been a remarkable commitment worthy of support by all stakeholders interested in the challenges faced by college students," said Christopher Flynn, director of the counseling center at Loyola University New Orleans.

Additional details about the Center for the Study of College Student Mental Health can be found at http://www.sa.psu.edu/caps/research_center.shtml online. Information about Penn State's Counseling & Psychological Services is available online at http://www.sa.psu.edu/caps/ or by calling (814) 863-0395.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated September 23, 2020