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More college students seek mental health services

The Gainesville Sun - 4/15/2018

April 15--Ernesto Escoto has seen the steady increase of University of Florida students coming to the Counseling and Wellness Center.

He's the director of the CWC, and three years ago, 4,400 students used its services. Two years ago, the center saw 4,700 students. Last year 5,100 students sought help from the center, 10 percent of the student body.

The increase follows a national trend of more college students seeking out mental health services. No one knows exactly why, Escoto said.

"There's a lot of hypotheses out there," he said.

Escoto has a few ideas. Students at UF got to this top-10 public university by earning top scores while balancing hectic schedules through high school, often as leaders at a young age. They're what Escoto calls "thoroughbreds."

"They don't know how to fail," he said.

Laura Zwilling, director of the Counseling Center at Santa Fe College, says she's seeing more students who have been under pressure since elementary and high school. Some have been on psychotropic medication since they were children, although the effects of those medications in children isn't well researched, Zwilling said.

Add in an extraordinary amount of time in front of screens and social media, she said, and "we have this perfect storm almost."

In 2017, the Counseling Center at Santa Fe saw 2,210 students, up from 2,018 students in 2015.

Escoto and Zwilling both say anxiety is the biggest reason students seek counseling, followed by depression and relationship problems.

Paul Burns, a UF senior psychology major, is an ambassador for the CWC. He tries to raise awareness that it exists and that its services are free. The CWC is off of Southwest 34th Street, separated from the main part of campus by Lake Alice.

Burns has used the CWC's biofeedback lab, which measures functions like breath, blood pressure and brainwaves and allows users to monitor those functions themselves. The lab has helped him meditate with guided breathing exercises, and that in turn has helped him manage stress and anxiety.

"Even if you really stand out in high school, you're kind of big fish in a little pond," he said. "Once you get into college, you find out it's really hard to distinguish yourself."

Escoto also sees milestones that were once typical for people in their 20s being pushed back. Adults are getting married later, and waiting to have children and embark on careers. Adults lose direction, then lose motivation. Some set aside their responsibilities because of it, and that creates a cycle of even less direction and motivation.

"If I'm doubting myself excessively," Escoto said, "then that freezes me."

That cycle can lead some students to believe their lives lack meaning, and that can then lead to suicidal thoughts.

Zwilling said the Counseling Center sees about 10 to 15 students each month who say they're considering suicide.

"We're not biologically driven to hurt ourselves or others," Zwilling said.

Suicidal thoughts often stem from mood disorders, like depression, or trauma, Zwilling said.

Among Florida's 28 state colleges, only five -- including Santa Fe College -- have counseling centers. Yet half of community college students nationwide report past or active mental health needs, Zwilling said.

Santa Fe's counseling center can have a week-long waitlist at times, although it always has a counselor available for walk-ins. At UF, the CWC has an average waitlist time of 16 days. Of the 5,100 students it saw last year, 306 were first wait-listed.

Santa Fe adds therapists as it has the budget for it. It currently has four full-time therapists and often has a graduate intern or two. UF CWC is adding 12 new positions to its 34 full-time equivalent employees during the next three years.

College counseling was designed to be a short-term solution to mental health struggles. But anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses can follow life's patterns, Zwilling said.

With each new semester, Zwilling conducts training sessions with faculty and staff outside of the Counseling Center to teach them how to recognize signs of a mental health or wellness crisis. Students can become disruptive because they have basic needs that are unmet.

About 40 faculty members a month have consults with Counseling Center staff to learn how to help with a specific situation a student is facing.

"We have to train as many people as possible," Zwilling said. "At the core, it's empathy training."

The positive side of so many students seeking mental health help is it indicates the stigma of mental illness is decreasing, Zwilling and Escoto said. Students are more aware of mental health issues, and that helps get them in a counseling center sooner.

"If we can get students in the door at the onset of a mental health concern, it's going to take far fewer sessions," Escoto said.

UF's Levin College of Law held a mental health and wellness fair Tuesday, which had yoga sessions, massages, human foosball games, ice cream and puppies. If law students are going to become good lawyers, Assistant Dean for Career Development Rob Birrenkott said, they need to be well themselves.

"We've got an obligation to get this right at the law school level," Birrenkott said. It was his idea to bring the human foosball game.

Lawyers are problem-solvers, he said, and it's difficult to admit that they themselves have problems.

Medens Gerbier, a second-year law student, agreed.

"Almost no one ever talks about it," she said. "I think it's important that we do have a conversation about this."

She's felt like she's drowning, even as she and her fellow students put on a strong face. She used to compare herself to other students who knew what they wanted to do. She was happy for them but confused herself.

This year, she learned she wants to pursue legal compliance and risk management.

"Finally, I've got it figured out," she said.

"It's OK to not know," she added. "It's OK to survive."


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