Mental health a challenge for Georgia college students, providers

Clayton State University assistant nursing professor Tamara Thompson-Jackson talks with students about mental health issues during a  campus health fair Friday, April 16, 2021.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Clayton State University assistant nursing professor Tamara Thompson-Jackson talks with students about mental health issues during a campus health fair Friday, April 16, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer/For the AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer/For the AJC

As a DJ played music outside Clayton State University’s student center on a recent Friday, assistant nursing professor Tamara Thompson-Jackson stood at a table talking to students about their mental health.

One frequently asked question by students who stopped at the booth, part of a university health fair, was what are the signs and symptoms of depression? They also wanted to know about services available to them.

Thompson-Jackson asked students what were they doing for their self-care. A few, unfamiliar with the term, couldn’t answer.

“They don’t know how important it is,“ she said.

 Clayton State University therapist Alexia Flen (R) talks with students at her Counseling and Psychological Services table during a  campus health fair Friday, April 16, 2021.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Clayton State University therapist Alexia Flen (R) talks with students at her Counseling and Psychological Services table during a campus health fair Friday, April 16, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

This is often the most stressful time of year for college students as they grapple with final exams, capstone projects and job or internship searches. Added to that is all of the stress and worries of living during a pandemic, which for many students meant abruptly leaving their campuses. Counselors say it’s been challenging to help students amid the coronavirus pandemic since many students are not on campus. Several schools have reported a decline in new appointments. And it’s not just the students struggling; the providers helping them are dealing with their own stresses.

Fortunately, area colleges and universities have begun to roll out additional mental health services recently, due in large part to a significant increase in funding. As more students return to campus next school year, even more services are planned.

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Last August, Gov. Brian Kemp allocated $11.5 million of the $4.1 billion Georgia received last year from the federal CARES Act to expand mental health services for the University System of Georgia’s 26 schools. Most of that funding, $8.6 million, expands USG clinical resources to provide telephonic psychiatric care and clinical counseling services for all students. The system will also establish a 24/7 hotline and well-being support programs. Another $1.1 million in mini-grants was also set aside for each school to support mental health and wellness.

Students say the services have helped. Others say more counselors are needed and the counselors on campus are overworked.

Widespread research shows mental health is a growing problem on college campuses nationwide. A 2018 study by a team of Harvard Medical School researchers of about 67,000 students in more than 100 colleges and universities found 1 in 4 students reported being diagnosed with or treated for a mental health disorder in the prior year. Nine percent of those surveyed attempted suicide.

These are some of the items Clayton State University counselors had on hand with information about mental health awareness at a recent health fair.
These are some of the items Clayton State University counselors had on hand with information about mental health awareness at a recent health fair.

Despite the statistics, many parents and students say colleges haven’t done enough to address the issue. For example, the parents of an Emory University student filed a lawsuit against the school in March, claiming university officials did little to address their son’s mental health issues before the student took his own life in August 2019. Emory, the state’s largest private university, has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. In a statement noting its condolences to the family, it also pointed to resources such as free access to telephonic mental health services since most students are off campus due to the pandemic.

The number of students seeking counseling services at Georgia State University, the state’s largest, has increased by 80% within the last six years, according to Clinical Services Director Mikyta Daugherty. The increase is due to two factors: the reduced stigma around mental health and a shift in the university counseling center’s internal practices, which included adding the option of walk-in appointments.

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Given the increasing demand with limited resources, the school sought an outside service. In January, Georgia State began providing its students free access to Togetherall, an anonymous online mental health community for users to seek and provide mental health support. The platform is moderated by counselors and crisis interventionists to monitor for users posting alarming information.

Georgia State has lost five contracted counselors since the start of the pandemic, according to Daughtery. Some left to care for children or sick relatives, some shifted to private practice and others had their own COVID-related health complications.

Burnout is also a major concern. Some counselors have struggled with setting aside their own anxieties to help their clients, Daughtery said, and spending hours a day on a virtual platform has overwhelmed them.

“There really hasn’t been much talk about those who are supporting people with those concerns,” Daughtery said. “Maintaining our steady presence while we’ve been dealing with the same chaos that the rest of the world has been dealing with has been a challenge.”

The pandemic blurred the once-defined lines between life in and out of the counseling room, said Andrew Lee, the president of the American College Counseling Association.

It’s difficult to gauge how the pandemic has affected the experiences of counselors because they’re is still in the thick of it, Lee said. Counselors’ concerns feel acute because they are still enduring them, and what happens a year or two years down the line is still a big question mark. The same goes for students.

Lee envisions that universities will see a spike in the demand for counseling services once students have time to process the trauma from the past year.

“Most people are saying ‘I just want to get through it and then I can process it,’ and then we can see what the emotional reactions are and the ongoing emotional stress,” Lee said. “Right now, it’s just about getting through the day-to-day.”

Two Georgia Tech students sign notes discussing their feelings during a wellness event on its main campus. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED.
Two Georgia Tech students sign notes discussing their feelings during a wellness event on its main campus. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED.

Georgia Tech opened a mental health office on campus a few months before the pandemic and has seen more follow-up appointments — sometimes as many as 50 a day, said Dr. Tiffiny M. Hughes-Troutman, director of the Center for Assessment, Referral, and Education

Like other schools, they’ve attempted to offer more online services over the past year. Graduate students, for example, participate in game nights to help students feel less isolated. Administrators have also tried to better support counselors through weekly activities that include virtual yoga sessions.

“We’ve all been affected,” Hughes-Troutman said.

Georgia Tech President Angel Cabrera, dressed in a dark blazer, talks to employees during staff appreciation event on its campus. Georgia Tech has held more such wellness events, particularly for mental health counselors dealing with various forms of stress. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED.
Georgia Tech President Angel Cabrera, dressed in a dark blazer, talks to employees during staff appreciation event on its campus. Georgia Tech has held more such wellness events, particularly for mental health counselors dealing with various forms of stress. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED.

The situation is similar at Clayton State where counselors are hearing from more students who are eating as a form of stress relief, said Dr. Christine Smith, Clayton State’s director of Counseling and Psychological Services. Smith’s team plans to continue its virtual services, including drop-in support groups. The pandemic has also taught them to be more visible on campus.

Christian Ransome, 21, a sophomore who came from Trinidad and Tobago to attend Clayton State, visited Thompson-Jackson’s booth.

The university should have such fairs at least three times a year, he said, to make students aware of their services.

As Thompson-Jackson, the assistant professor, who had a bowl of Hershey’s Kisses at her booth quickly learned when it comes to spreading their message, “a little chocolate helps.”

Mental health funding

The University System of Georgia, which oversees operations at 26 public colleges and universities, created a $1.1 million mini-grant program to support mental health and wellness programs. Here’s a breakdown of how much money was received by the schools in metro Atlanta and at the University of Georgia, the state’s flagship university.

College/University Funding

Georgia Tech $74,900

Atlanta Metropolitan State College $57,455

University of North Georgia $53,060

Georgia State University $55,500

Kennesaw State University $50,482

Clayton State University $39,243

University of Georgia $35,000

University of West Georgia $27,500

Georgia Gwinnett College $26,377

Source: University System of Georgia

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