Observations from the Front Lines: What College Counseling Centers are Experiencing this Fall

Observations from the Front Lines: What College Counseling Centers are Experiencing this Fall

Amaura Kemmerer, LICSW 
Executive Vice President of Client Engagement 

I am familiar with the ever-changing landscape of college student mental health as a clinical social worker who spent 15 years in higher education administration focused on college student wellness, mental health, and prevention education. Yet this semester seems to be clearly different and more difficult than any in my memory as counseling centers deal with the pandemic’s deep impacts on student needs and staff capacity.

College student mental health has been on a troubling trajectory for some time. Reports about the impact of the pandemic on mental health this fall confirm that ongoing, unmet student needs are bringing more mental health concerns for students and more work for counseling center staff. Data from the 2021 Healthy Minds Study shows unprecedented rates of anxiety and depression, which have been increasing for over ten years. Undoubtedly, the pandemic has exacerbated this already concerning trend. Knowing that those in the field working directly with students are the best sources of insight, I turned to my network of counseling center directors, practitioners and higher education administrative colleagues who shared the following observations about what their students and counseling staff are experiencing:

  • From the start of the semester, counseling centers have observed increased severity of student mental health issues.  More typically, this severity comes later in the semester around mid-terms and finals.
  • Counseling Center Directors report an increased number of student hospitalizations for mental health emergencies.
  • Students are reporting difficulty in managing their lives (academics, relationships, well-being) and feeling overwhelmed.
  • Uncertainty about the pandemic and the future is a common concern and source of anxiety for students.
  • There are continued reports of racial trauma with an increased demand from students to meet with clinicians of a shared identity.
  • The traumatic impact of the pandemic on students’ lives includes grief from losing family members, financial impacts, and loss of life experiences/milestones.
  • An increased number of students are experiencing heightened stress related to academics, difficulty with motivation and completing coursework.
  • A higher prevalence of students are pursuing ADHD assessments due to difficulty with focus. It is difficult to distill what may be diagnostic attentional issues versus adjustment to returning to in-person learning in a classroom.
  • Students are reporting more anxiety in social settings.
  • Students are sharing that they feel they ‘missed out’ on social experiences in the past 20+ months and feel pressure to adjust to being around groups of people again.
  • There is a high demand for mental health services across the board, and across the spectrum of need.
  • Some schools are using a tiered system to direct students with lower-level concerns to groups, workshops, and peer support. 
  • Stigma related to seeking mental health support is decreasing. Students are more open about their concerns and seeking treatment.
  • Untreated mental health issues have been exacerbated due to isolation and the pandemic.

Equally as concerning as the student trends, counseling center staff are sharing that they feel overworked and as though the demands are taking a serious toll on their mental health and quality of work-life. Counseling Center Directors and Administrators reported a significant number of resignations among clinical staff. This turnover has made it even harder to address the surging student need. Difficulty in recruiting and hiring staff was a common challenge reported, with the observation that many mental health professionals have left institutions of higher education and joined or started private practices. The collision of greater student need and acuity with a reduced supply of mental health professionals has created an especially challenging environment for colleges/universities this fall.

Christie Campus Health’s CONNECT@College services can help college counseling centers that are looking to respond to the complex and increasing demand for services. We offer solutions through a multi-modal platform, designed to meet students where they are in their varying mental health needs. Christie Campus Health is designed to expand the work already being done by counseling centers. While serving students is the core of the CCH mission, we strive to partner and support counseling centers through special benefits like quarterly webinars with continuing education credit.  Visit our website for more information about Christie Campus Health and its CONNECT@College suite of student mental health and wellness offerings for colleges and universities.

Special thank you to the clinicians and administrators who contributed to this article, including Dr. Tricia Hale, Deputy Chief Officer- Student Affairs, Valdosta University.

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