University working to address student mental health needs

November 04, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Over the past 10 years, student mental health counseling needs at Penn State have grown at a rate five times faster than University enrollment, according to Ben Locke, senior director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) — something he attributes to national awareness efforts.

“What we’re experiencing here is totally consistent with the national trend,” said Locke, who also directs the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, a multidisciplinary research network that provides up-to-date information on the mental health of today’s college students.

“The results we are seeing are the outcomes we would expect to see from suicide prevention efforts over the last decade,” he said. “We’ve been asked if students are sicker today, and this doesn’t seem to be supported by the data. Over the last five years, the rate at which students report prior mental health treatment has not increased, but with communities being primed to say ‘that’s a problem, let’s find you help,’ more students are being referred.”

Locke and Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims spoke about the state of Penn State student mental health during the Board of Trustees meeting on Friday (Nov. 4).

As student utilization of mental health services has grown, CAPS services have shifted out of necessity from a predominant focus on long-term problem resolution to services that emphasize more of a rapid access crisis intervention focus on evaluation, stabilization and safety planning.

“We always make sure we can provide emergency services in a short time period — that’s our priority,” Locke said, but he would also like to ensure students in need (not just those experiencing a crisis) get follow-up treatment to heal.

Locke compared the scenario to other forms of health care. “If you have strep throat, and go into a health center, they won’t tell you to come back in two weeks because they’re fully booked,” he said, “and they won’t give you a half prescription; you’ll get a full prescription for the medication you need.”

He added that increased availability of treatment after evaluation would also help prevent crisis situations from occurring in the first place.

Sims said the University is in the process of conducting a gap analysis of CAPS at University Park and at each of its Commonwealth Campuses.

“We’re going to understand better what the need is and where, and that also needs to be contextual based on the surrounding communities and resources,” Sims said. “This is a system of support. Response to student needs goes beyond CAPS, which works closely with the Office of Students and Families, Residence Life and other Student Affairs-related entities on campus.”

In the interim, a new CAPS Chat program, which places counselors in University Park’s South Residence Halls for informal, drop-in meetings with students, was implemented this fall. The program is supported through a gift from Rodney P. Kirsch, former senior vice president for development and alumni relations, and Michele S. “Mitch” Kirsch, associate dean for student affairs in the Schreyer Honors College. The Class of 2016 gift, a CAPS endowment, will generate funds to further support the embedded positon and clinical services at CAPS for years to come.

Sims said strong student leadership has helped spread awareness on campus, leading to an increase in their peers seeking help and also an increase in support for CAPS service improvements. University Park Undergraduate Association President Terry Ford added that UPUA and other student organizations have placed a focus on advocacy in this area. In addition to last year’s Class Gift, student leaders were also instrumental in creating the new Student Fee Board, which will oversee student fee allocation to student activities, facilities, recreation and services like CAPS.

“The de-stigmatization of mental health is a progressive trend that we hope continues,” Sims said, “but it will mean that we need to provide more of these services.”

Last Updated September 23, 2020