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David Baxter

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College Counseling Centers Face Increased Demand, Smaller Budgets
Thursday, September 20, 2007

If there has been one positive outcome from the horrific tragedy at Virginia Tech, it is the increased awareness that mental health conditions have an impact on campuses across the country. In a society where stigma against mental illness is decreasing and support is on the rise, more and more students with mental health concerns, ranging from the serious to the mild, are enrolling in secondary education. On all fronts, this should be seen as a victory. The only downside, as USA Today reported this morning, is that schools and communities now face shortages of care providers.

Virginia Tech threw the dialogue about care for those with mental health problems into the spotlight, but it has been an issue that many groups have been aware of for some time. The American College Health Association, which administers the National College Health Assessment, has tracked health issues for college students across many areas of concern. While these assessments quantify student reported problems, the more helpful data may come from the International Association of Counseling Services, who publishes the National Survey of Counseling Center Directors. This report polls the directors of counseling centers at universities across the US and Canada :acrobat: to find out not what students say their problems are, but what those who provide support see as areas of concern.

As can be seen in the clip below, counselors have seen demand rise in a number of areas, and feel pressure to meet that demand. Unfortunately, this increase in students seeking help also coincides with the tightening of belts around the country. Few on-campus counseling centers are expanding, while some have even been forced to trim expenditures from the budget. Beyond that, in some areas, even community support is lacking due to a paucity of trained mental health professionals. Speaking with USA Today, Rick Hanson, president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, said:

"Counselors often find liability issues when they ask, 'Do I treat this person, who is kind of stretching my areas of competence?' Hanson says. "I don't have a lot of training in that area, but I'm the most trained person in town. If don't do it, nobody is going to do it. It's a challenge that people in rural colleges come up against regularly."

These issues should not come as a surprise, as they are often very similar to those faced in rural areas throughout the rest of the country. And while budgetary restraints may seem to tie the hands of on-campus counseling centers, whether because resources cannot meet rising demand or because budgets are getting cut, it is possible to look to new solutions to alleviate some of the strain on existing services. Researchers and clinicians are finding success with treatments that don't necessarily involve stepping into an office. Universities, in particular, have always been sites of early adoption when it comes to new technologies. Campuses have been successful at dispensing information over web based interfaces, and fostering online community. Both of these concepts, if applied to mental health, can become useful tools to the counseling centers of American universities. Treatment Online offers this type of functionality, in a format designed specifically for schools. Some universities have already set a course for creating proprietary systems to perform similar tasks. Counselors are feeling new pressures because the demand for their services have changed, even as the limited resources have not grown. Instead of bemoaning this shortfall, schools need to be actively searching for new answers. If Virginia Tech served as a wake up call, we in the mental health community need to be sure to enact change and empower students to seek and utilize care when it is needed.

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