Coping on campus
By France Griggs Sloat
One Sunday night this spring, a distraught student threatened suicide. Over the next few hours, Oliver Birckhead, a clinical psychologist, carefully talked the student through the problems that led to this desperate call for help, successfully convincing the student to start a series of counseling sessions right away.
Fortunately, most visits to the University’s McGrath Health and Counseling Center, where Birckhead is director, don’t have such traumatic beginnings. They’re more likely to be students who need help adjusting to life away from home. Some are more serious.
Regardless of the reasons, more students than ever are showing up with eating disorders, depression, drug addiction and identity crises.
“We get students who need to be referred for a variety of reasons,” says Lorri Howell, Buenger Hall director and co-advisor of the resident student association. “I’ve been here three years, and it just seems like it’s a lot more.”
She referred about 15 students for counseling this year, and doesn’t know how many more students other hall directors referred. So acute is the increase that she and a group of directors are making a presentation this summer in Orlando about stressed-out students who need help coping on campus.
It’s not just at Xavier, though. The demand for mental health counseling services has exploded on campuses nationwide. The New York Times reports similar increases at colleges across the country, including Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has had 12 suicides since 1990.
At Xavier, visits by students to McGrath jumped 68 percent from 1999 to 2001 and were up 53 percent this January over the same year-to-date period two years before. There were 1,480 visits for counseling services during the 2000 school year, jumping 40 percent to 2,173 in 2001. Back in 1996, there were barely 1,000.
What’s going on here? Counseling professionals say there are no definite answers, but they have their theories.
“We are seeing more and more psychological problems and they are of worse complexity and more severe,” Birckhead says. “Most of those who come in are freshmen. It’s a trend and a nationwide observation. Most are societal factors.”
Life on campus can be very stressful, says resident student association president Steve Weissenburger, a senior this fall. There are high academic expectations and a demand for students to get involved in other activities. Eating disorders are among the most common problems he sees in the dorms, he says, but students today are more apt to seek help.
“I do know people who talked about suicidal thoughts, but it was not because of stress at school. It’s more from family situations,” Weissenburger says.
To respond to the demand, the McGrath center has four full-time counselors, including Birckhead, and a staff of four physicians who coordinate the care of patients receiving counseling. Even so, the demand was so high by Thanksgiving the last two years that Birckhead reluctantly had to start a waiting list. Some had to wait four weeks.
McGrath, however, has made sure that despite any time inconveniences, counseling still remains free for students. It covers the entire cost by billing students’ insurance plans for medical visits only. That, plus a University subsidy, has allowed the center to add more hours and higher-quality staff.
“The cost of psychological care is part of the tuition, part of the Jesuit tradition and is seen as a necessary service,” Birckhead says.
The care begins in the residence halls, where trained professionals like Howell and Jesuit priests keep an eye on students. Having adult advisors in the dorms helps keep many from going over the edge and gets them the help they need.