Erasing the stigma: more students are seeking help for mental illness–and are finding it at UK

Jacob Eads

Concerns about student mental health are growing across the nation, and UK is not immune.

In the 2016-2017 fiscal year, 1,055 reports were filed with the Community of Concern, an on-campus resource devoted to addressing student and employee well-being and campus safety. That number was a 30 percent increase from the 2015-2016 fiscal year, according an annual report from the Office of Student and Academic Life.

This mark is already close to being eclipsed again, only nine months into the 2017-2018 fiscal year. The COC office had just received its 1,000th report in the early days of March, according to Therese Smith, COC director.

“I think a lot of universities across the nation are recognizing the importance of [mental health], and that our students are coming for a variety of reasons. I mean for a variety of reasons, our students are more anxious than previous generations,” said Assistant Director of the UK Counseling Center Megan Marks. “Growing up in a pretty scary world contributes to it, and there are also high stakes in college.”

Seemingly refreshed from the recent spring holiday, UK students have returned to their clocklike routines to prepare for the taxing back end of the spring semester.

Over the next five weeks, students will be pitted against the everyday issues that invite student anxiety and other mental illnesses right into their own backyards.

However, the UK administration is not ignoring these challenges that students face; university officials are doing their best to provide students with necessary resources.

The COC is one of those resources. The current COC Team was constructed in July 2013 when UK merged the Students of Concern and Employees of Concern Teams. Those initial groups were fabricated as part of a heightened security movement following the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.

Members of the UK community can file reports with the COC when they feel students are showing signs of academic, financial or mental distress. Then the COC will follow a detailed plan to best assist the individual of concern based on their case rubric.

Smith said it would be “very irresponsible” to assume that a majority of the people that interact with the COC pose a threat to anyone on campus.

“Most people do need some support, do need some help, do need some intervention, but it’s so they can be successful and not disruptive, not because they’re going to hurt someone else,” Smith said.

Smith said that by supporting those who are struggling, the COC is “hopefully” creating a system that will prevent an adverse event from occuring on campus.

“We’re putting a puzzle together, and everybody on campus has pieces of the puzzle,” she said.

Like the COC, the UK Counseling Center is a free campus resource. It offers “confidential, short-term therapy to support students’ growth and to assist students with mental health, academic, or personal concerns that may interfere with academic performance or a sense of personal well-being while at UK,” according to the Counseling Center website.

The counseling center tends to conduct roughly 11,000 to 12,000 individual and group appointments and sees an estimated 2,200 unique clients per year, and those numbers don’t include the centers drop-in services, Marks said.

Roughly 72 percent of the counseling center’s clients are repeat visitors, while the average client visits the counseling center for five sessions, according to Marks.

The counseling center is involved in more than 300 outreach programs each year that help contribute to the volume of clients it attains—the programs reach almost 10,000 individuals. During these outreach sessions, employees spread awareness about the counseling center and speak on topics like career decision making, forming healthy relationships and suicide prevention.

Professionals at these campus resource locations are no strangers to the tribulations and stress of the academic school year, seeing firsthand the effects of midterm and finals weeks.

“With the academic calendar, obviously there are some ebb and flows… crunch time months are going to be September, October and November,” said Marks. Along with February and March, she added later.

She cited the stress of midterms as one predominant factor in this increase of appointments.

The counseling center sees an estimated 50 to 60 brand new clients each week during these “crunch time months,” according to Marks.

September and October see the highest numbers of reports to the COC, according to a report of the 2016-2017 fiscal year from the Office of Student and Academic Life.

Campus stakeholders are also aware of the changing climate of student anxiety and mental health. Some have even made it a priority to tackle the issues at their sources.

Current Student Government Association President Ben Childress recently presented his proposal for instituting a fall break into the academic calendar to the University Senate.

According to the proposal, the first introduction of the break would appear in the Fall 2019 semester.

“In my mind, it’s a common sense method that we can take that will positively impact mental health and wellness on our college campus,” Childress said. “Sometimes all it takes is visiting home, just taking that time and not doing anything in your dorm room, or catching up on sleep. I mean, that stuff can do wonders.”

Childress’ administration also launched a mental health and wellness task force earlier this academic year. Childress said the group had some very productive meetings and is eager to see the fruits of its labor.

SGA President-Elect Michael Hamilton expressed that mental health and wellness hits close to home, after he watched one of his close friends struggle with issues of mental health.

“If we don’t accomplish anything else, we’ve got to do something to alleviate that for students,” Hamilton said.

His administration created a new position within the SGA office that it have titled the “Director of Innovation and Initiatives.” This staff member will deal with any new issues that come to the student government, and the first item on the chopping block is addressing mental health treatment here at UK, according to Hamilton.

His team is formulating the idea of creating an ambassador program full of students who are open about their use of the Counseling Center and other mental health resource centers in order to reduce the stigma behind student anxiety, and show the student body that mental health isn’t some “weird, taboo thing,” Hamilton said.

“I think it’s just tackling that stigma. We go to the University Health Services if we have a cold. I want to see, one day, the Counseling Center be that normal,” he said.

Professionals at the campus resource locations dedicated to mental health and wellness also commented on this changing level of acceptance.

“I do sense that students are getting more comfortable with being open and honest about their needs related to mental health, but there’s still a lot of stigma,” said Smith.