BLACKSBURG, Va. – Virginia Tech is two months into its new initiative aimed at improving students’ mental health.
Demand for counseling services has increased at universities around the country, including at Virginia Tech, where there’s been a 43% jump in the last five years in students seeking services, which far outpaces enrollment growth.
The university is implementing new strategies as a result, with the goal of having the whole university aware of mental health concerns. Leading the way is Dr. Chris Flynn, who has spent decades examining best practices and who used to oversee the Cook Counseling Center.
“A lot of time and energy has gone into this. I think the university has made a commitment,” Flynn said.
He believes the fact that more students are interested in services presents difficulties for all universities.
In 2006, when he started working at Virginia Tech, the budget for counseling resources was a quarter of what it is today. He said, then, he never could have imagined this kind of demand.
“I think that Virginia Tech has worked very hard to maintain an adequate number of mental health professionals to serve the student body,” Flynn said.
Virginia Tech has about one counselor for every 1,000 students, which reaches the preferred end of the nationally recommended level. The school has added 15 full-time counselors in the last four years, bringing its total to 44 at any one time.
The Cook Counseling Center on campus now sees 15% of the student body.
From social media to school shootings, many experiences can lead to anxiety. Flynn feels the main reason more students are seeking counseling is because the stigma surrounding it is going away.
“When I was younger, there was a lot of stigma around seeking mental health services. I think that stigma is has largely disappeared,” he said. “It's easy to pin the blame on smartphones. I don't think that's the full answer to the question.”
He gives credit to parents and school systems for increasing awareness.
Over the last year, the university evaluated the increase in demand. A task force analyzed the issues, brainstormed ideas and came to four basic conclusions it's pushing in an initiative that began this semester.
1) Awareness of resources
Virginia Tech believes there needs to be more awareness among students, parents and staff of the resources that are available. To help spread the word, it’s launched a campaign, which includes highlighting online and self-help material.
2) University policies and procedures
It’s considering changes to university policies and procedures to make them more mental-health friendly.
It wants more education -- working with student groups, teaching mindfulness and pushing prevention.
The school is monitoring the staffing at the Cook Counseling Center, eyeing what adjustments it would need to make if demand continues to increase.
“We want staff, faculty and students, and of course parents, to be able to support one another and have a broad awareness of the issues,” Flynn said.
He believes parents can help, staying aware of potential problems.
“I think parents are doing a terrific job of being much more responsive to their student needs now,” Flynn said.
That includes encouraging their kids to get help if they need it, he said.
Virginia Tech has a few counselors available at all times for a same-day appointment if a student feels they’re in crisis.
The school also learned in its most recent survey that, in the 2017-2018 school year, 18% of students said they wanted to seek counseling. An estimated 17% of students were taking medication for mental health reasons.
The university hopes to increase its efforts in understanding what its students are going through. Flynn said the goal is for the school to conduct a survey each year and to send it to every student instead of just a portion of the population.