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As demand for mental health services at colleges rises, administrators struggle to keep up

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LONG BEACH, Calif. (Circa) -- On a Saturday afternoon at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), hundreds of students from across Southern California schools descend onto campus for "Live Your Life Day," a day of activities dedicated to promoting mental health wellness.

"We're doing a workshop on suicide prevention today," David Nguyen, a sophomore at CSULB, tells me.

He's part of Active Minds, a student-to-student peer mental health support group. Nguyen says last fall marked the busiest club meetings they've ever had, with about 30 students attending each event. The semester before, they averaged about 15.

According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) at Penn State University, the demand for mental health services has gone up by about 30% at most U.S. universities, while enrollment has only increased 5%.

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Suicide prevention flyers are handed out at a workshop for Active Minds at Cal State University in Long Beach, California.

"What we are seeing is a very specific increase in the percentage of students who report a lifetime history of self-injurious behavior or having seriously considered attempting suicide from a lifetime prevalence perspective," said Ben Locke, the executive director at CCMH. What's at the root of the increase? "We asked for this problem. We've spent the last 15 to 20 years trying to convince people in the U.S. to seek mental health services. Now you have to cope with these people who you've convinced to seek mental health services."

A sophomore at UCLA who spoke on condition of anonymity said the longest she had to wait for an appointment was 3 months.
UCLA student

But colleges are struggling to keep up with the demand. A 2017 STAT survey of 98 college campuses found that wait times for initial appointments can be anywhere from 10 days to 3 weeks.

"I’ve had anxiety attacks myself, and I had to go through [CSULB's] professional services," Nguyen said. "When I was given a session on campus, they told me they don’t have enough room for individual sessions on campus, so I had to get referred to off-campus resources.”

A sophomore at UCLA who spoke on condition of anonymity said the longest she had to wait for an appointment was 3 months. A junior at UCLA says she only had to wait 2 weeks and that was because of her "busy schedule." Meanwhile at USC, a now-alum says she tried getting an appointment with a therapist but was told there was waitlist because they "were only taking people who were 'high risk.'"

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Students at CSULB role play a possible suicidal scenario.

Our whole goal is to destigmatize the area of mental health on campus and provide kind of a support group outside of professional services.
David Nguyen, student at Cal State Long Beach

But it's not all so bleak. At smaller schools like Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, sophomore Tomas Daniel Cortez said he waited an hour for counseling services and says he found the meetings "helpful and comfortable." Anna Lueck, who was requesting appointments for depression and PTSD at Middlebury College, said she had to wait a week and a half for her intake appointment.

While some colleges scramble to rework budgets and allocate resources, students like Nguyen are turning to student-led groups, like Active Minds, for help in the meantime.

“Our whole goal is to destigmatize the area of mental health on campus and provide kind of a support group outside of professional services," Nguyen said.

Active Minds, a national nonprofit with 467 college chapters, stresses that it's not substitute for professional mental health services. Rather, it's there to serve as a liaison to those services. The CSULB chapters hosts workshops throughout the year on topics like eating disorders, anxiety and depression.

"Each person is going to have a different scenario or situation that they’re going to act out with each other," one of the chapter presidents explains to the workshop attendees at "Live Your Life Day." The students split into groups of two, where one pretends to be a friend and the other plays the role of the suicidal friend. With some guidance, they practice what to say to the friend in need, asking them "How are you?", listening and suggesting they reach out to someone they really trust.

For students like Nguyen, who has been coming to Active Minds workshops for two years, Active Minds has helped him with his own anxiety and helped him be of help to his friends.

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A poster reading "We're all in this together" sits on the door to one of the classrooms used for the mental health workshop at CSULB.
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"There are some friends and family members that have struggled I’ve noticed with mental health issues, but I didn’t know exactly the most effective strategies," Nguyen said.

Knowing how to help a friend can go a long way at college campuses today. On average, there's one mental health professional for every 2,355 students at U.S. universities. The International Association of Counseling Services recommends a ration of one mental health counselor for every 1,500 students.

Cal Sate Long Beach did not respond to a request for comment.

Still, there's no cheap fix to such a complicated problem, according to the executive director of CCMH.

"Mental health services are expensive. It’s certainly reasonable to say, you know, we don’t have the resources or the capacity, so you’ll need to use your health insurance to seek that into the community," Locke said. "Or you can look at your funding mechanisms to decide how to grow mental health services to a point where it at least provides kind of a public mental health level of access to to rapid access and routine basic treatment."

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