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Communication key to helping students with mental health issues

- March 17, 2008

Barry Schreier joined the University last July as head of Counseling and Mental Health Services.

He recently sat down with Karen Grava from the Advance to discuss some of the issues faced by college students with mental health issues and by counseling services.

This is an edited transcript of their interview.

It seems more students have mental health issues these days. Is that true?
It is. The Association of University and College Counseling Center Directors, a national organization, surveyed 662 counseling center directors last year.

According to the 2007 survey, 82 percent of counseling center directors noted that the number of students coming for counseling who have significant psychological problems is increasing.

The survey also shows that 85 percent of counseling centers reported an increase in the number of students coming for counseling services who are already on medication.

Mental health is a growing concern at every college and university in the nation.

How is the University addressing these growing needs?
We have asked the University to reallocate some funds from student fees so that we can hire additional mental health professionals in time for next fall.

The International Association of Counseling Services and the American College Health Association say that colleges should have at least one mental health staff member to 1,500 students, and that the “platinum standard” is one professional for every 1,000 students.

At the moment, our ratio is higher than that, but we have requested four additional staff so hopefully, by the fall, we will have one for every 1,300 students.

Are there certain times of the year when mental health issues are more apparent than at other times?
Certain months are more hectic than others. October through mid-November and all of March and April are the busiest for Counseling and Mental Health Services. As the semester goes on, the pressure mounts.

Are some students more at risk than others?
Most of the students who come to us with concerns are a little bit older. Usually the problem is not with first-year students, who need time at school before realizing they need assistance.

And there are more female students than male who seek out help. Sometimes that is because culturally, some men feel they should be able to take care of themselves.

There are also cultural issues for some students in asking for help – they would not typically go to a stranger and tell them family secrets.

People are worried that some students with mental health issues might be a danger to others on campus.

One thing we do know is that when you think about danger to anyone, overwhelmingly it is that the students may be a danger to themselves. Shooters are few and far between, and suicides are far more typical.

In fact, when violence is involved at all, there is usually a problem primarily or at least additionally with drugs and alcohol.

Is suicide on college campuses more prevalent today that it used to be?
I don’t know for this campus. Epidemiologic studies nationwide show that suicide is no more or less prevalent than it was 100 years ago.

But suicide rates can go up and down in a specific community, and we can lower the suicide rate by the actions we take as a community.

We’ll be embarking on Suicide Prevention Week next September with a multi-campus coalition with the central vision of remembering those we have lost and reducing the chances of it happening on our campus.

How can you prevent things from getting out of hand?
The biggest preventative tool is communication between members of the campus.

When you look at the report done for the governor of Virginia in the wake of the incident at Virginia Tech, my read is that everybody who was involved with the student, including the counseling center, more or less did his or her job as prescribed.

But they all did their jobs separately and did not comprehensively discuss what they were noticing with each other.

Barry Schreier, director of Counseling and Mental Health Services.
Barry Schreier, director of Counseling and Mental Health Services.
Photo by Frank Dahlmeyer

What has Counseling and Mental Health Services done to promote communication at UConn?
We have formed a very organized network within Student Affairs. Counseling and Mental Health Services has informal weekly meetings with Student Affairs professionals about students who are of concern to us.

This way we can work together to help students in distress, and prevent things from becoming worse.

We are also working to educate the University community and help them recognize when there’s a problem and when to encourage a student to seek help.

What can people outside Student Affairs do?
People need to realize that where there is smoke, there is often fire. If they think something is wrong, it probably is.

We don’t want them to ignore it because they think it’s not their business or they don’t want to say or do something to make it worse.

Most of the time, intuition is the best way of knowing that a student is in trouble. Training faculty and staff to recognize that will help us get help for those students.

We want faculty and staff to feel confident in their observations and to feel that they can call the counseling center and share their worries with us. The counseling center will offer information about what to look for in a student in distress, what to be concerned about, and what to say to the student.

What else might you do?
We will also check with the residence hall staff and other constituencies to see if concern is rising there as well. If there is, we might make contact with the Dean of Students or the police.

Students can live on a floor in a residence hall of 60 other students and feel isolated. Again, our greatest tool is communication.

If we’re worried that a student is at risk of suicide, we might try to locate the student and help with transporting him or her to the hospital so disaster can be averted.

Aren’t students supposed to seek out help on their own?
Yes. But it’s our job to be very good advocates for them. We also want faculty and staff to know that it’s important for them to encourage a student in distress to come in for help.

If the counseling center calls a student as a cold call, that will guarantee he or she will not come in.

There are things you can say and do as an advisor, friend, roommate, parent, or professor that uses your relationship to urge the student to seek help. We are also working with the religious communities on campus, and with the cultural centers.

How is your office getting the word out to the community?
We have a new web site –www.counseling.uconn.edu– that provides online assessment tools and self-help information for faculty, staff, parents, and students. It includes the handbook for helping students in distress.

We are also producing a Counseling and Mental Health Services newsletter. The first one focuses on depression, and we will also have newsletters on eating disorders and relationship issues going out this semester.

The newsletter is distributed to a broad range of faculty and staff, as well as to the clinics and some student organizations. It will also soon be posted to our web site.

Sept. 7-13 is National Suicide Prevention Week. We will be providing “QPR Training,” which is the national standard for suicide prevention training, to members of our campus to “question, persuade, and refer” people to counseling and other support services.

We are also working with the Dean of Students Office and others to develop an on-campus training program to accompany the handbook on helping students in distress.

In short, if we all work together, we can help students work through, adapt to, or outgrow their concerns, and avoid acting out on them.

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