Sitting in front her computer, Concordia counselor Juihsien Kao pulled up her electronic calendar. Like a completed puzzle, countless colored blocks covered the screen, each showing an appointment with a student, meetings and a few spots set aside for breaks and lunch. As she clicked the mouse, the calendar moved forward to show pages and pages of the same multicolored patchwork, each covered with countless little colored blocks crammed together.
“Very busy,” Kao said, taking another glance and picking up her coffee cup. “We’re getting busier and busier each year.”
Kao is not alone among the counselors at Concordia in facing increased demand for counseling appointments. Although she is the newest in Concordia’s team of counselors, she finds that all of her colleagues are facing the same situation: an ever-increasing demand for counseling services across campus.
“We’re typically booked full,” Kao said. “From the third week of the semester on, I’m pretty much booked.”
At Concordia and across the country, students are increasingly turning to their college or university counseling services for assistance. The American Psychological Association finds that not only are numbers up compared to those of a decade before, they’ve risen sharply from figures seen five years ago. The APA report cites the 2010 National Survey of Counseling Center Directors analysis, which found nearly 44 percent of their clients had severe psychological problems, a dramatic increase from only 16 percent in 2000. The most common mental health issues that counseling centers face are depression, anxiety, suicidal behavior, eating disorders and self-injury.
This growing trend has manifested itself in other areas. The APA’s report also highlights a 2010 survey of students conducted by the American College Health Association, which found that nearly 45.6 percent of students surveyed reported “feelings of hopelessness” and 30.7 percent reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function in the past 12 months.
Concordia has seen evidence of a similar pattern in the types of services sought by students from the counseling center. Most of Kao’s appointments are for students facing depression and anxiety. Each meeting seeks to find ways to identify the problems faced by students and work to find proactive strategies for moving forward, she said.
Lois Cogdill, director of student support and orientation, is also worried about the increased amount of students experiencing mental crises.
“Not only are more students going [to the counseling center],” Cogdill said, “but their concerns they’re bringing are more serious.”
In order to meet the increased demands on their resources, the Counseling Center has moved to change their system for setting appointments, Cogdill said. Previously, students would sign up for an hour-long appointment with a counselor. These were preliminary appointments: informative sessions for the counselor to get to know the students and make recommendations for future appointments or coping strategies, she said.
However, the challenges of much higher demand and finite resources have caused the creation of new half-hour appointments. While still informative and introductory in their approach, these sessions are much more problem-solution oriented, Kao said. The goal is to try and address the needs of the student immediately and try and provide coping mechanisms for the issue the student is facing.
Contributing factors driving more students to increased anxiety and depression may stem from new pressures facing students today, including unrealistic expectations and stresses from the nation’s current economic crisis, campus sources said.
According to Hall Director Brady Hubbard, a key issue facing Concordia students is the increased amount of overextended students; those who are spreading themselves thin in too many activities. Through his work in Residence Life, Hubbard often sees firsthand what things are going on in the daily lives of students.
“Every year I see a greater percentage of students being involved in everything,” he said. “They see success as always being stressed.”
Between jobs, music ensembles, athletic teams and classes, students are trying to cram more into their tight schedules.
“Students feel that they need to set themselves apart with activities to stand out in a pool where everyone has a bachelor’s [degree],” Hubbard said. “The problem is that people aren’t being intentional in their activity choices and instead they’re doing everything.”
According to Hubbard, being involved isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The problem becomes when being involved is taken too far. Over-involved students face little or no downtime, preventing students from having the opportunity to unwind, which can only make a bad situation worse, he said.
With less personal time, students are becoming increasingly unable to cope with challenges and issues.
“As a student’s level of activity rises, their resiliency lowers,” Hubbard said.
When looking at causes of over-involvement, Hubbard finds the campus culture to blame for the rise in students being overcommitted. Concordia typically attracts over-involved students in the first place, and then reinforces the behavior by offering countless leadership and involvement opportunities, he said. With many studies showing involvement directly linked to retention, the college also heavily pushes for students to find teams, clubs or ensembles to join, Cogdill said.
The key is finding a good balance of involvement that works for each student, Hubbard said. Unfortunately too few students do this self-evaluation.
“You need to spend time calculating what your involvement is getting you currently and where it will get you in the future,” Hubbard said. “Once you’ve done that you need to make a choice and choose quality of involvement over quantity.”
In order to help address students’ needs, other campus organizations have partnered to help make sure that no student can fall through the cracks. According to Cogdill, leading the way in addressing mental health is Concordia’s early alert referral system, which allows faculty, administrators or advisors to identify students who might be struggling and help match them to the appropriate resources on campus.
“It’s a coordinated referral system to make sure that nobody gets missed,” Cogdill said. “It helps our right hand know what your left hand is doing.”
Because the program is available across campus, each department works in collaboration with the various Student Affairs resources to assess the individual needs of students to help them be successful.
“Students expect a variety of services so they can do well,” Cogdill said. “They want to do well, and they expect to do well.”
In addition to the early alert system, Student Affairs has adopted other ways of checking in on students. To help first-year students manage the stresses associated with starting college, Orientation Leaders do a four-week check-in with all of their “clubbies” to make sure that they’re transitioning well to college life, Cogdill said. First-year students are also required to meet with their academic advisors four weeks after the semester has started, which serves as a further check to address any early concerns and make referrals to various departments if needed.
“The goal is to get students connected to the resources available to them on campus,” Cogdill said. “The challenge is getting students to use them.”
Role modeling positive behavior can also be vitally important in helping students, Hubbard said.
“We need to set an example and role model positive behavior with boundaries,” Hubbard said. “Show students what good balance looks like, show them that it’s ok to have downtime for mental well-being.”
Kao agrees, finding the importance of making good, well-thought choices a vital part of college. Being mindful of decisions and their ramifications can help prevent anxiety, she said.
“With freedom comes a lot of responsibility,” Kao said. “For everything you do in college, students need to understand the importance in making wise decisions.”
A senior majoring in Political Science and Communication, James hails from Omaha, Nebraska. He focuses primarily on the unique things that define our everyday lives.