To meet a significantly rising demand and need for mental health services among students, New Jersey colleges and universities have implemented solutions that range from increasing wellness staff to introducing payment models and ramping up prevention efforts in mental health and wellness services.
Mark Forest, health and wellness director of counseling and psychological services at The College of New Jersey, said the increase can be traced back to several things: living in an increasingly complex society, a lack of development in social and coping skills, better diagnoses in youth, and less stigma.
“We’ve worked very hard for years to reduce stigma around seeking out mental health services,” he said. “Some of this increase and demand reflects that we’ve been reasonably successful in this.”
Michael McMahon was in a dark place when he attempted suicide at 24 years old.
Experts have noted that more teens and young adults today suffer from mental health and substance-use issues, and they’re seeking out help for them in a culture that is more accepting and encouraging of treatment.
An annual survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors found about 66 percent of people on campuses in the 2016-17 year said counseling services helped with academic performance and 65 percent said services helped them stay in school.
Donald Cassidy, director of counseling at Stockton University, and officials at Rutgers University said both schools have added more experts over the years to treat students. Forest said TCNJ has increased staff about 50 percent since he began there in 2014.
David Rubenstein, vice president for health and wellness and director of counseling and psychological services at Rowan University, said the school’s wellness center has gone from about 20 staff members to 60, including 15 behavioral health counselors.
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Having more professionals helps decrease or eliminate wait times for non-emergency appointments.
The last thing Forest said they want is for students to wait long to get an appointment when they may be struggling with any of the leading reasons students seek counseling appointments for, which include anxiety, stress, depression, medication management or suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Cassidy said adding group counseling and support groups that specialize in different areas of mental health is another strategy that has helped open up access. Stockton offers 20 different groups students can pick from.
Providing care can become complicated when students require more extensive, long-term treatment, and many of the colleges refer students to outside providers when they can’t meet those demands, but insurance coverage and transportation issues can create barriers to treatment, they said.
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Noticing those shortfalls, Forest said TCNJ recently created the Community Counseling Collaborative, which brings in outside providers who offer complex mental health services on campus at low-cost or on sliding-scale payment models for a range of insurance plans.
Colleges also have had to grapple with how to fund their wellness and mental health services in light of the surge in need. Many initial services like intake appointments, counseling and group support are free at the majority of schools, while medication treatment, hospitalization or outside referrals can involve co-payments through insurance plans.
Earlier this year, Rowan officials announced they would move to a new payment model to sustain mental health and wellness services for students.
Appointments and visits are now processed through students’ insurance plans, along with any accompanying payments. Services are free for students on the university’s health plan. Rubenstein said the goal is to reinvest any money from payments back into the wellness center to grow services.
Cassidy said Stockton considered moving to a similar payment model but decided against it over concerns that any charges would deter students from seeking help.
The cost for university-provided treatment services still remains a concern, he said, which is why prevention efforts have become a key focus.
Prevention efforts have now become key in helping students avoid more serious mental health issues that require more extensive treatment.
Rubenstein said Rowan has done this by placing counselors in high-traffic academic buildings and centers.
Cassidy said Stockton has significantly increased their activities, events and seminars around prevention, and was able to conduct more than 1,000 mental health screenings this year as part of the school’s suicide prevention events.
“We know prevention is intervention, therapy is intervention and crisis management is intervention,” he said. “Each year that goes by, we get more students in that long-term, serious-issue category, and the services they can get when they get to campus can make a difference.”