CHAMPAIGN — The mental-health statistics are startling.
In 2018-19, the number of crisis walk-in appointments at the University of Illinois Counseling Center reached 471, up 85 percent in two years.
And the number of hospitalizations for students who present a danger to themselves or others rose from two per semester five years ago to nine last spring, according to Director Carla McCowan.
The statistics reflect a surge in demand for mental-health services on campuses nationwide, fueled by rising levels of stress, anxiety and depression among the college-age population.
“More students are being seen earlier for problems, the problems themselves are more severe, and there are more students than ever using the Counseling Center’s services,” said a December 2018 report by the UI Senate’s Student Life Committee, which called for more staffing and efforts to reduce academic pressure on students.
“This trend I don’t think is unique to the University of Illinois, but it does signal that we need greater resources,” said law Professor Rummana Alam, who chairs the committee.
A UI student group, Students for Mental Health Reform, planned a protest today to demand more resources for mental-health services, though the event was canceled late Wednesday.
The group called on the UI to increase staffing at the Counseling Center, make more appointments available and hire more licensed psychiatrists. Currently, the campus is down to one psychiatrist, though officials say they’re planning to hire three more.
Demand for services is “extremely high” on a competitive campus like the UI, said Meghan Lyons, spokeswoman for the student group. The protest was part of a communications class project on social movements, and students chose this topic because every one of them had been affected by it in some way, she said.
The Counseling Center first noticed a spike in demand in the 2014-15 school year, and it’s increased steadily since, said Nichole Evans, assistant director for outreach and prevention.
The most common problems are anxiety and depression, but the senate committee’s report also cited academic concerns — “students feeling overwhelmed by due dates, the quantity and nature of course exams and assignments, and an increased sense of competitiveness and pressure to ‘perform’ academically.”
The rising numbers may also be influenced by reduced stigma around mental illness and more outreach by the Counseling Center, it said.
“This generation of students is a lot more comfortable discussing their mental health, and they’re a lot more willing to seek out services,” Evans said.
Better treatments for serious mental-health issues have also allowed students who are bipolar, for example, to attend college and earn degrees, Evans said. The UI is admitting more students with those conditions, and they’re able to manage but still need support.
“Maybe 10 to 15 years ago, they wouldn’t have gone away to college,” she said.
One of the most consistent complaints from students is a lack of available appointments. Those hoping to get a same-day appointment with a counselor have to call at 8 a.m. and hope for an opening, but the slots fill up fast.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” Lyons said, and the problem is growing as enrollment expands.
Evans said the Counseling Center recognizes the problem and is adding staff as funding and space allow. But it’s limited by space in its current home at the Turner Student Services Building, officials said.
“Ideally, we’d have enough counselors so that when somebody calls they can always get in right away,” Evans said. About 35 percent of students get appointments the first time they call, and it’s “very rare” for students to wait more than two or three days, she said.
For a student in crisis, however, that may seem like an eternity. Evans said receptionists are trained to ask students whether they’re experiencing an emergency. If so, they meet with a triage team who can do a brief assessment and make arrangements for them to be seen immediately or draw up a short-term plan until they get an appointment, Evans said.
The triage team has been expanded to four members, up from one five years ago, she said.
With more than 45,000 students on campus, it’s an effective way to “get to the students who need us the most,” said Lowa Mwilambwe, associate vice chancellor for student affairs.
The campus is also using “embedded counselors” in specific colleges, starting with two in 2017-18 — one in the Grainger College of Engineering and one in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Two more were added this fall, in the Gies College of Business and the Division of General Studies, and the plan is to add two more next year.
Students feel more comfortable reaching out to someone familiar with their college, Evans said. The counselors also interact with faculty and staff members, so when they spot a student in trouble they can seek out help, Mwilambwe said.
The Counseling Center is funded through an annual health fee paid by students, so the campus has to consider the cost-effectiveness of services, Mwilambwe said. Adding new counselors means asking students for more money, he said.
The health fee is $238 annually, with the $37.71 going to the counseling center and $200.29 to McKinley Health Center.
Regarding psychiatry services, Mwilambwe said it’s a specialized field and candidates are in high demand nationwide. And college health centers can’t pay as much as the private sector, he said.
The campus has hired a search firm to help replace two psychiatrists who retired recently and to fill a new position that will be added next year.
One-on-one counseling isn’t the only solution, McCowan said. Besides group therapy, the Counseling Center has increased outreach and prevention services, with more workshops on test anxiety, mindfulness, “perfectionism” and other topics to teach students resiliency. Results have been “very, very positive,” she said.