View article as it appears on GoUpstate.com
As the number of college students nationwide requiring mental health services has grown, so too have the counseling staffs at several Spartanburg County colleges.
Area schools are working to keep up with an increased demand for mental health and counseling services. More students than ever, likely because the stigma around mental health has begun to fade, are open to talking about their stressors and things that negatively affect their lives on a daily basis.
“Counseling and mental health services are becoming more culturally part of our fabric,” said Perry Henson, director of counseling and accessibility services at Wofford College. “The more we provide outreach, the more students are accessing our services. The de-stigmatization is a big part of it. Just culturally, we’re becoming more open to talking about mental health issues. Awareness has certainly been raised over the past few years.”
The Associated Press recently reported that national surveys showed increasing rates of anxiety and depression among college students. Some experts think the increase is because students are more openly discussing mental and emotional health concerns.
Natasha Inlow, a student services counselor at Spartanburg Community College, said many small colleges have to rely on faculty to be the first line of defense for students’ mental health. Professors have to get to know students so if something is bothering them, they feel comfortable talking to someone and finding the appropriate help.
“More than anything, it’s identifying. Is this person having these thoughts, and are they planning on acting on these thoughts?” she said. “If there’s an immediate (likelihood) to any of them, getting them to, even walking them to, the right clinician services is crucial.”
The AP reported that most of the 100 largest public universities nationwide didn’t track suicides among students specifically.
The AP asked the largest 100 public universities for suicide statistics and found 46 colleges tracked suicides, including 27 that did so consistently over the last decade. Of the other 54 schools, 43 didn’t track suicides and nine could only provide limited statistics when it came to student suicides. Another two schools didn’t provide statistics at all.
Rhonda Mingo, the dean of students for community life at Converse College, said the college hasn’t recorded a student suicide in 15 years. But students’ families don’t have to give information to colleges about how they died, she said.
“Converse does evaluate annual trends in the demand for counseling, as well as students who have critical mental health care needs,” she said. “However, given our student body size of just under 1,000 undergraduate students, the aggregate numbers are often too small to accurately spot trends by student populations.”
SCC’s status as a commuter school — with students driving to and from campus for classes — makes suicides harder to track.
“In my opinion, residential institutions are at a greater risk of having students who commit suicide on campus than commuter institutions,” said Ron Jackson, vice president of student affairs at SCC. “That is not to say that we have not learned about students taking their own lives, but those are community events, not acts committed on campus.”
For years, Wofford didn’t track suicides among students but recently started making an effort to do so.
Wofford recently joined the JED Foundation, a national organization of colleges working to network and institute best practices for mental health needs of students.
“Because Wofford is a small institution, things that happen with our students are very apparent. Because of our small community environment, things that have happened over the years are well-written about. For the longest time, we didn’t track suicides specifically,” Henson said. “We do now. Over the years that has evolved into what we have now. Colleges across the country are seeing a big increase in the demand for counseling services.”
Mingo said Converse has two full-time therapists, a part-time therapist and three counseling interns available on campus. Every student who visits the college’s wellness center for counseling is assessed for suicidal thoughts.
Several local colleges have staff on call 24/7 who are trained to do screenings if a student shows signs of self-harm.
SCC, Converse, Wofford, Spartanburg Methodist College and the University of South Carolina Upstate all have on-campus counseling departments for students to take advantage of for free and anonymously.
“This is extremely important, as research suggests that 80 to 90 percent of students who complete suicide nationwide were not connected to counseling services on their campuses,” Mingo said.
Many colleges also provide mental health sessions for freshman students the week they begin college.
Getting first-year students connected with campus resources can be a major key to helping them get used to college life.
“College probably is the biggest transition most of our students have ever seen in their life. Not just academically, but where they’re living, who they’re living with, who’s around them, the food they’re eating, the bed they’re sleeping in, everything is brand new. Transition is a stressor, even good stressors,” Henson said. “Having that support network on campus that understand the climate of a college, the specific issues college students face, particularly coming into college, it’s hugely important. There are a lot of unique issues that present themselves.”
Despite the fading stigma surrounding mental health issues, some students are still worried about contacting campus resources.
Inlow said some students underestimate how seriously they need counseling.
“Another factor I’ve read about is students saying, ‘Oh, there are others who are worse off. I don’t want to impose on counseling services because there are others who need it more than I do,’” she said. “One thing I have stressed to students is I am available on all five (SCC) campuses. Transportation should not be an issue.”
Henson said she and her peers across the country are working to make trips to counselors’ offices less stressful and easier to schedule.
At Wofford, the counselors’ office, in an old, brick home near the college’s baseball field, is not far from the freshmen housing complexes, which helps get students involved with counselors earlier, Henson said.
“It can take a lot of courage to take that first step. We’re here to make it not so hard or so scary,” she said. “We’re right across from the first-year residence halls. We hope it’s welcoming, inviting. We want to make it as easy as possible.”
Inlow said as more students talk about mental health concerns, more people see it’s easier to break down barriers.
Talking about suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts, Inlow said, helps drastically reduce how commonly they occur, especially among college students.
“When you talk about what you’ve gone through, it helps others see it’s OK to share their concerns,” she said. “When you talk or ask about suicide... That’s one thing in a lot of research I’ve done, is that talking about suicide actually helps reduce the rate.”