A Dangerous Wait: Colleges Can’t Meet Soaring Student Needs For Mental Health Care

Constance Strawn, a student at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., had to wait several weeks to be seen by a mental health professional on campus. Being unable to access mental health care in a timely fashion often proves deadly for those needing assistance. Here, Strawn is photographed on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017. Photo by Lucas Carter for STAT.

Colleges across the country are failing to keep up with a troubling spike in demand for mental health care — leaving students stuck on waiting lists for weeks, unable to get help.

STAT surveyed dozens of universities about their mental health services. From major public institutions to small elite colleges, a striking pattern emerged: Students often have to wait weeks just for an initial intake exam to review their symptoms. The wait to see a psychiatrist who can prescribe or adjust medication — often a part-time employee — may be longer still.

Students on many campuses are so frustrated that they launched a petition last month demanding expanded services. They plan to send it to 20 top universities, including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, MIT, and Columbia, where seven students have died this school year from suicide and suspected drug overdose.

“Students are turned away every day from receiving the treatment they need, and multiple suicide attempts and deaths go virtually ignored each semester,” the petition reads. More than 700 people have signed; many have left comments about their personal experiences trying to get counseling at college. “I’m signing because if a kid in crisis needs help they should not have to wait,” one wrote.

STAT requested information from 98 campuses across the country and received answers from 50 of those schools. Among the findings:

At Northwestern University, it can take up to three weeks to get a counseling appointment. At Washington University in St. Louis, the wait time runs nearly 13 days, on average, in the fall semester.

At the University of Washington in Seattle, delays in getting care are so routine, the wait time is posted online; it’s consistently hovered between two and three weeks in recent months. In Florida, where educators are pressing the state legislature for millions in new funding to hire counselors, the wait times at University of Florida campuses can stretch two weeks.

Smaller schools aren’t exempt, either: At Carleton College, a liberal arts campus in Northfield, Minn., the wait list can stretch up to 10 days.

A few weeks’ wait may not seem like much. After all, it often takes that long, or longer, for adults to land a medical appointment with a specialist. But such wait times can be brutal for college students — who may be away from home for the first time, without a support network, and up against more academic and peer pressure than ever before. Every class, every meal, every party can become a hurdle for students struggling with eating disorders, depression, and other issues.

Many counseling centers say that they are often overwhelmed during the most stressful times for students, such as midterms and finals. Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., for example, reports a wait time of up to a month during busy periods.

“I was just looking at that date on the calendar and thinking, ‘If I can just make it one more day.’…I just couldn’t hang on.”

CONSTANCE RODENBARGER, STUDENT AT INDIANA UNIVERSITY

In most instances, STAT’s examination found, students who say that they are suicidal are seen at once, and suicide hotlines are available for after-hours emergencies. But some students are uncomfortable acknowledging an impulse to harm themselves, and thus get pushed to the end of the line, along with undergrads struggling with concerns ranging from acute anxiety to gender identity issues.

Campus counselors are acutely aware that they’re leaving students stranded but say they don’t have the resources to do better.

“You’re making sure people are safe in the moment,” said Ben Locke, who runs a national college counseling network and directs counseling services at Pennsylvania State University. “But you’re not treating the depression or the panic attacks or the eating disorders.”

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