After many years of advocating for mental health to have parity with physical health services, progress is being made. The number of people who now talk about the positive impacts that behavioral health services have had on their lives is something to celebrate, as is the rising number of those who no longer associate stigma with seeking mental health counseling. Clearly, people’s lives are better because of the mental health care that professional counselors provide. I am especially encouraged that more young people than ever before seem to understand the importance of positive mental health and the great benefit of services provided by trained professionals.
However, for those young people entering college today (Generation Z) and encountering the added stress brought on by that experience, wait times to receive mental health services on campus can be atrocious. The reasons for this are many. There is the cost of fully staffing a university counseling center. There is the administrative red tape that might have once been appropriate for a system built decades ago. Then there is the simple reality of increased demand, especially given that young people today may be more willing to seek the help of a professional counselor.
So, on one hand, we continue to address the challenge of people not seeking mental health services. For the past several years, however, we have faced a system on university campuses in which demand clearly outpaces supply.
Counselors who work in university counseling centers are amazing, dedicated and compassionate mental health professionals. I think many of them are overworked, yet they still persevere and provide high-quality mental health care to students. Investing in university counseling centers is the morally correct thing to do of course, but it also has financial benefits. Students who are unable to access needed mental health services are more likely to undertake risky behaviors, fail their classes, lose their financial aid and drop out of school. There is also a cost to society, including the support that will ultimately be required for those who are unemployed, homeless, or lacking the mental health services they need to be productive citizens.
If we are serious about ensuring that this latest generation of students succeeds, are we not obligated to provide the resources that will give them the best possible chances of earning their degrees, securing jobs, and becoming dependable, productive and contributing members of society?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am a huge fan of college athletics and the many social opportunities afforded to students on university campuses. Truth be known, I probably took more advantage of the nonacademic offerings than the academic ones that life on campus presented to me many years ago. Given what we are seeing regarding the mental health needs of today’s young people on campus, however, I would absolutely support shifting some of the funding that goes toward extracurricular activities to university counseling centers.
Counseling services at postsecondary institutions are critical, and they need to be integral and fully funded endeavors. The American Counseling Association will continue to explore ways to improve this situation. We look forward to working with our division, the American College Counseling Association (see collegecounseling.org), and other organizations that understand the need for resources that will help provide the mental health services that college students deserve.