College counseling centers face more demand for services

Counseling center directors explain why millennials are lining up for therapy.

By Eleanor Greene/Matters of the Mind

When some members of the millennial generation began college in the fall of 2001, counseling centers assumed a new social role. After 9/11 shook the nation, the generation experienced the struggles of college at the same time as national hardships — the economic downturn coincided with serious conflict in the Middle East.

“I think the current youth have been faced with pressures that are different than those of previous generations,” says Ayana Watkins-Northern, Ph.D., the counseling center director at Howard University. She has worked at the center for nearly 40 years.

Traci Callandrillo, Ph.D., is the director of the counseling center at American University. In her decades in counseling, she’s seen stress levels rise steadily in students, and more come to counseling centers for help.

‘I think the current youth have been faced with pressures that are different than those of previous generations.’

Since she started working at American University 15 years ago, student demand for services has risen “exponentially,” Callandrillo says.

Photo by Eleanor Greene

American University Counseling Center director Traci Callandrillo calls college a “gateway to adulthood.” // Photo by Eleanor Greene

The American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment asks students if they have seen a professional for treatment or diagnosis of a mental health condition. In 2008, nearly 20 percent of students had seen a professional for those reasons. The top two most common conditions were depression and anxiety, which 6.3 percent of students have been treated for. In 2014, 22.9 percent had seen a professional for treatment or diagnosis, and 8.6 percent had been treated for depression and anxiety.

“We’re talking about issues that affect everybody, but at the same time, you’re in college while they’re affecting you,” Callandrillo says. “That’s a gateway into adulthood and it’s a time when there’s expectations about your performance and your ability to care for yourself, which is a different kind of stress than if you’re mid-career or if you’re five years old.”

In a 2015 survey of 844 millennials conducted by American University journalism students in Matters of the Mind, 75 percent of respondents said that money was one of their greatest sources of stress. This could be a reflection of debt, high cost of living or the result of being in college during and after the economic recession.

As the generations have shifted, so have the needs of both college counseling centers and students.

All three directors say the belief that millennials are more mentally unhealthy than generations past holds some validity. Partly, they each explained, this comes with millennials being more willing to “present for counseling,” which means that young people are asking for help in higher numbers than ever before. They see this as a positive change.

‘I wonder if students are having enough fun’


Sharon Kirkland-Gordon, Ph.D., is the director of the counseling center at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before Kirkland-Gordon spoke about common problems, she was eager to share the positive qualities she sees in millennial students: willingness to learn, connection to community and interest in activism among them.

Photo by Brandon Latham

Students walk to promote mental wellness at the University of Maryland. // Photo by Brandon Latham

She says that many of her staff are millennials themselves who show a particular interest in helping those who are going through problems they can relate to. But she says that the problems she sees in students now are quite different than what she saw when she first began working at the University of Maryland in the ‘80s.

[Read our story about the challenges millennials who are mental health professionals face.]

“I also think that students are in a place where they are more anxious, and they’re more stressed, and they struggle with issues around perfectionism,” Kirkland-Gordon says. “And sometimes I wonder if students are having enough fun because they seem to be so driven.”

All three directors noted that it’s not just one factor causing millennials to be more likely to seek counseling. Besides drive and national circumstances, Callandrillo says she thinks millennials are less resilient than generations past. In other words, a culture of overbearing parenting and gold stars have given millennials fewer experiences of failure than other generations.

“Whether that’s about getting an F in middle school, or not making a sports team, I think there are ways in which I think we, as a society, have made it more difficult adolescents to develop resiliency and then that plays out in college,” Callandrillo says. “If the first time you experience that is your freshman year [of college], you’re not going to know what to do with it. You’re on your own.”

Still ‘woefully understaffed’

The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD) is an organization that provides resources and better managerial practices for counseling center directors. Since 2007, it also conducted surveys of nearly 360 university counseling center directors to assess the increasing demand for centers around the country.

In 2007, the paid staff to student ratio was one to 1441 for four-year private universities and one to 2553 for public universities. In the most recent results in 2013, the ratios lowered. The survey only reflects changes in paid staff. This means that the numbers might not reflect a better student-to-therapist ratio. For a four-year private university, the ratio was one to 1280 and for a four-year public university, that number was one to 2165.

With fewer students per professional, it seems as though schools are providing better care for their students. At American University and the University of Maryland, counseling centers have grown. The have hired more staff as the budget allows and created programming like group therapy as more students seek appointments at the centers.

Despite these changes, changing ratios only reflect a survey average. Even if there is a rise in psychologists per student, improving ratios don’t account for increasing numbers of students who pursue counseling on campus.

Howard University’s budget was affected by cuts during the recession. Cost overruns by the university’s teaching hospital resulted in deeper budget cuts in 2013, which affected the counseling center despite the high demand.

‘I think the difficulty is that, as a society, we don’t tend to really understand and want to fully embrace mental health.’

“I think the difficulty is that, as a society, we don’t tend to really understand and want to fully embrace mental health,” Watkins-Northern says. “ And since that’s really not so widely embraced, I think there’s an effort to pay minimal attention to it … So in the university settings, we have counseling centers, but we are woefully understaffed.”

No matter how many students come through the door, center directors emphasize never turning away a student in an emergency. They try to work with students who have other options for mental health services to help them pursue those off-campus resources, Callandrillo says. This is because there simply aren’t enough people who are able to fill every student need.

There are many services available at the University of Maryland counseling center that aren’t the one-on-one sessions students traditionally think of as therapy, Kirkland-Gordon says. Support groups and workshops to teach study and coping habits are two such examples she discussed.

‘I want to help reduce stigma’

There are more students than ever seeking counseling, Kirkland-Gordon says, and that’s a good thing. But that doesn’t mean her work is done. Certain students and demographic groups are less likely to seek counseling because of the norms or expectations in their communities.

[Experts say culture influences stigma around mental health. See our video.] 

In particular, she looks at students with conduct or behavioral problems on campus who could seek counseling as a preventative measure for those behaviors.

Overall, she’s inspired by the interest millennials have taken in mental health. This not only includes seeking counseling services, but also writing more articles about mental health in college newspapers and online.

“I could think, 10 years ago, very few students were interested in this,” Kirkland-Gordon says. “And then the other part of it is that I want to help to reduce stigma so that students can see counseling as a viable resource for them and to not be afraid.”

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