McClatchy-Tribune News Service
University of Maryland junior Grace Freund works on counseling material for training new volunteers at the school's student-run Help Center, which helps students during a mental health crisis.
BALTIMORE — Within a week of arriving on campus this semester, University of Maryland junior Grace Freund felt the familiar symptoms of a depression creeping up — ones she knew to address quickly, lest they slip from her control.
The 21-year-old psychology major called the counseling center on the College Park campus soon after to set up an appointment. However, she said, her request was rebuffed.
“They said, ‘Call back next week. We can’t even schedule an intake appointment today,’ ” said Freund, a graduate of Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City.
Across the nation, college students — an age group particularly prone to mental illness — report similar frustration. Campus counseling centers often have insufficient staff and long waiting lists, mental health professionals say. In Maryland, counseling center directors say they are nearly overwhelmed with the ballooning numbers of students requesting services.
Last month, a graduate student at the University of Maryland shot and killed one housemate and wounded another before turning the gun on himself, police say. The family of Dayvon Green told police that he had been treated for a mental illness in the previous year.
Hours after the shooting, Maryland President Wallace D. Loh said the university had increased mental health resources in recent years to address the needs of troubled students.
But students and others at College Park paint a different picture — one of poor access to help and few resources at their fingertips — that appears to be more in line with national trends.
Ninety-two percent of campus counseling centers surveyed last year said the number of students seeking help had increased in recent years, according to the American College Counseling Association. Eighty-eight percent said the increases in demand and in the number of clients with “more serious psychological problems” had “posed staffing problems.”
Reasons for increases in demand vary, according to professionals. Awareness of mental health on campuses has grown in recent years. Centers have advertised their services more heavily since campus shootings by troubled students at Virginia Tech and elsewhere.
And more students are also showing up to college already on psychiatric medications.
“In general, there’s a little bit of a sea change going on right now in recognizing that overall success in college has a lot to do with a student’s mental health and well-being,” said Alison Malmon, founder and executive director of Active Minds, a mental health nonprofit that works on college campuses. “But there’s not additional money going to mental health on campuses.”
At a campus vigil after the shooting at Maryland, Loh followed his comments about increasing resources on campus by saying the shooting presented “lessons to be learned, policy questions to be discussed, changes to be made.”
The university has employed part-time contract counselors in recent years, and had posted a job opening for a new staff psychologist a few weeks before the shooting.
But that position hadn’t yet been filled when Loh spoke, and the posting followed years in which full-time staffing at the campus counseling center remained flat.
The number of students seeking help at the counseling center for stress, depression, anxiety or other mental health problems rose from 1,466 during the 2007-2008 school year to 1,986 last year — a 35 percent jump.
During the same period, the number of full-time counselors remained steady at 12.
“One of the things that we’re working on is increasing our staffing,” said center director Sharon Kirkland-Gordon. “Of course, we have an economy where there were no hires, there were job freezes.”
Kirkland-Gordon said students who call or show up at the center with a health emergency can be seen within hours. Others often have to wait up to two weeks for an initial assessment.
The Baltimore Sun asked a spokeswoman for Loh about the apparent contrast between his statement that the university had “significantly increased” its counseling staff and the fact that the full-time staffing had remained flat over several years.
“We continue to assess and meet the needs of our students requiring mental health services,” spokeswoman Crystal Brown responded in an email. “We are currently conducting a search to add an additional staff psychologist at the center, which is a direct response to the increased demand we are seeing.”
Similar staffing limits challenge campus counseling centers elsewhere in Maryland.
Staffing levels at Towson have remained steady, said Jaime Fenton, director of clinical services at the university’s counseling center, with nine psychologists supported by doctoral interns and part-time psychiatrists.
The number of students receiving services has jumped, she said, but not nearly as much as it would if staffing levels weren’t limiting the number of appointments that can be scheduled.
“We are doing our best to do more with less to meet the needs of our students,” Fenton said.
Smaller campuses are seeing similar jumps in demand.
Donelda Cook, director of the counseling center at Loyola University Maryland, said her center has seen a 30 percent increase in student requests for counseling this fall compared with last.
Insufficient staffing “makes the work more frustrating, clearly,” Cook said. She said online counseling software aimed at giving today’s plugged-in students more options has been used nearly 2,700 times since November 2011.
There is no waiting list at the Johns Hopkins University, which has increased staffing and recently opened a new counseling center. But it can still take up to two weeks for a student to be seen, director Michael Mond said.
That’s in part because students have their own scheduling conflicts. Increasing demand at the Homewood campus is also a factor.
Officials at Morgan State University did not provide the exact number of students seen at the campus counseling center per year, but center director Nina Hopkins said the number has risen in the past five years. Between 350 and 550 students have been seen each of the last five years, out of about 6,000 students enrolled, she said.
Center directors throughout the region say students who need emergency counseling can get it right away, regardless of waiting lists.
But students tend to downplay their symptoms, students and mental health professionals say, and won’t always describe their needs as urgent, even if they are.
Students say they wish more attention were paid to the struggles thousands of their peers deal with on a regular basis.
Freund said the status quo is discouraging.
“It seems often the only way you can get help is if you have this very extreme situation,” she said. “But mental health issues are so common and everyday, and it’s frustrating that it’s not treated as such.”
Malmon, of Active Minds, said universities and colleges “like to come in after the fact when there’s been a tragic incident and talk about how to prevent that tragic incident, but these are issues that impact many more people.”
“If we did more on the early side, we wouldn’t have to get to that tragic situation,” she said.