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‘The perfect storm’: Worries mount that Florida’s colleges face a mental health crisis like no other
South Florida Sun Sentinel - 8/18/2022
In the coming days, Florida’s college students will move into their dorms and apartments carrying laptops, wall posters, new bedding — and the burden of mental health problems they may not yet realize they have.
This could be a year like no other.
Several schools soon will see record-breaking numbers of incoming freshmen arriving amid a deepening youth mental health crisis catalyzed by the pandemic. Many of them spent most of high school virtually, and at home with their families, reeling from the bombardment on social media of news of gun violence, school shootings and political and racial divisiveness.
They step onto university campuses where a shortage of therapists has made counseling centers — already overburdened — further struggle to fill vacant positions, let alone add new ones. Now counselors are bracing themselves for the surge in demand for their services that lies ahead.
“It’s going to be problematic,” said Dr. Jon Brunner, chair of the Florida College Counseling Directors Association and director of the counseling center at Florida Gulf Coast University. “Some are calling it the perfect storm.”
The transition to college has long presented mental health challenges for young people away from home for the first time. But each year, this generation’s challenges loom larger, their levels of anxiety and depression rising. In December, the U.S. surgeon general issued an advisory to highlight the urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis.
For this incoming class, the challenges of social interactions, academic pressures and growing sense of self are intensified by the loss of normalcy during most of their high school years. “The theme of the last couple of years is ‘expect the unexpected,’” said Todd Lengnick, the director of the counseling center at Florida International University. “As far as what we’re preparing for, we are just preparing for Armageddon, I guess.”
Last year offers a sneak peek
Counseling center directors know it will only take a few weeks before students flood in seeking help, wait times grow and crisis lines become jammed. If it’s any indication of what lies ahead, last year offers a glimpse at the post-pandemic challenges on college campuses.
Counselors say the number of students using their services for social anxiety rose significantly in the 2021-22 school year, and they’re expecting even more this year.
Paola Ramirez was one of the students. In January, she left her home in South Florida for the first time and made her way up to the University of Central Florida, where she would be starting school as a 19-year-old junior after being dual enrolled in community college courses and high school for the past two years. Most of those two years of intensive schooling were virtual.
Ramirez describes herself as “shy.” Anxiety had hummed in the background for most of her life, but she had never felt comfortable talking about it at home. Both the need and ability to do something about her mental health surfaced in college. Those first three months, she felt isolated.
“It was just kind of like, I’m alone, which gives me certain freedoms, which is great,” she said. “But I’m also alone, I don’t have any friends or any family up here.”
She didn’t know counseling was an option or that she could afford it until a professor mentioned it during class. The first week of February, she contacted the school’s counseling services to make an appointment. But she said she didn’t see anyone until the third week of March. UCF matched her with someone tailored to her needs, which was “really cool,” she said. She now goes to counseling every other week.
Counselor shortage meets growing demand
Counseling centers are trying to prepare for the surge ahead. They were established decades ago on Florida’s college campuses to help smaller numbers of students with less urgent mental health problems. But most have been grappling for at least a decade with the growing demand for services and the lack of funding for additional resources.
While universities pour money into new academic buildings and research, funding for on-campus counseling — one of the most critical influences on dropout rates — has stalled. “All we can do is step up and be as ready as we possibly can,” Brunner said. “There is a lot of scurrying around and looking for people and looking for ways to address this. The tsunami is coming and it’s been coming for years.”
This year, Florida’s counseling centers must try to meet the needs of an openly struggling generation, when they, too, have to contend with burnt-out counselors, difficulty filling open positions and lack of funding to add more resources.
The pandemic hasn’t been easy on counselors. “I’ve been serving in leadership for 25 years,” Lengnick said, “And this has been the most challenging two years of my life.”
As of March, 78 positions were vacant at counseling centers across Florida. Spring typically is when counseling centers staff up for the fall.
“The school year is about to begin with a lot of open positions,” Brunner said. “We will do the best we can.”
“We are in the hiring process,” said Rebecca Estrada Lockwood, a psychologist with UCF’s Counseling and Psychological Services. Eight of the positions are psychologists and eight are graduate students.
“We’ve had some people decline because the pay for the psychologist position wasn’t enough,” she said. “We are hoping to fill the master’s positions but the psychologist positions are harder to fill.”
Facing wait times
Over the past three years, counselor caseloads have increased on most college campuses. At USF, Strader said he was seeing a demand increase of 5% to 10% every year before the pandemic hit. Those numbers went down briefly during lockdowns.
But counseling center directors say the demand picked up in 2021, soaring past pre-pandemic levels, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, which collects data from 650 university and college counseling centers.
“Because of rising demand and rising caseloads, you are doing more work than the week prior and that can have a cumulative effect,” said Brett Scofield at the Center for Collegiate Mental Health.
Dr. Kathryn “Kate” Kominars at Florida Atlantic University said her university, like most others in Florida, will set up a “triage” appointment for a student to be seen within three days. “If it’s a crisis, we would even see a student the same day,” she said. “It’s not the first appointment that’s the issue, but rather how long it will be in between appointments.”
Long before the pandemic, wait times for students to get appointments would stretch from weeks to even months.
“I know so many people, they try to schedule an appointment and the next appointment is next semester or two months away,” said Mailys Angibaud, a student at the University of Florida who works for the university’s peer mental health group Sources of Strength and the local Alachua County crisis hotline. She added, “They only have so many counselors.”
The high number of vacancies this year means the already long wait times might be longer than usual this fall — particularly around mid-terms in October when academic stress peaks.
“We’ve been told we’re going to get more freshmen this fall than we’ve had in a while,” said Dr. Anika Fields, the director of the counseling center at FAMU. “We’ve been trying to prepare all summer for this.”
Funding hasn’t improved in a decade
Florida’s campus counseling center directors say they don’t have the budget to lure more or even retain therapists.
The funding Florida’s counseling centers rely on for adequate staffing to serve their students has remained stagnant for years. Counseling centers at Florida’s public universities receive the majority of their budget from health fees all students must pay to the university alongside their tuition. These fees vary from school to school, and are based on either headcount or a dollar amount, usually $1 per credit.
Florida’s public university boards of trustees set the health fees, according to state law.
In January 2014, the FloridaBoard of Governors, which oversees Florida’s 12 state universities, instituted a new performance-based funding model that incentivizes universities to “restrain tuition and fee growth,” according to its website. The schools haven’t raised the health fee since. “They have not allowed us to raise health fees for at least 10 years,” said Brunner at Florida Gulf Coast University and chair of a group made up of the director of Florida’s college counseling centers. “We have been fighting as much as we possibly can.”
The Board of Governors considered asking for mental health funding as part of its budget request to the Florida Legislature in 2017 and prepared a report on the significant needs of the counseling centers. The request did not get approved. “Our office has not updated that report and no state funds have been provided for that specific purpose,” said Christy England, Vice Chancellor, Academic & Student Affairs for the State University System.
Meanwhile, enrollment has gone up dramatically, as has the percentage of students who use mental health services.
Melissa Keyes, of Southwest Florida, said when her son was struggling at the University of Florida, she urged him to seek help. He listened but left his appointment at a counseling center, with a list of private therapists in the Gainesville community. “They were overwhelmed and overbooked and couldn’t handle more kids,” she said.
Keyes said she researched the list and decided she would have to private pay. “I was absolutely at their mercy,” she said. “I needed to get my son healthy.”
Her advice for freshman parents: “Talk to your kids and if they need it, encourage them to seek help. If the university can’t provide it, then you have to step in.”
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