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IOWA CITY — Among a handful of key areas on which the University of Iowa is focused as its heads into a future facing challenges old and new is mental health and supporting student well-being, University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson told a group of community members Thursday.
“We've done a couple of great things recently with our renewed focus on mental health,” Wilson said, speaking to the Iowa City Noon Rotary Club. “We're hiring more mental health professionals. But frankly, we can't hire enough to keep up with the load.”
By instituting a new annual $24 student fee, the UI has added eight mental health professionals to its counseling service — which now has 38 staffers, including three psychology interns and six practicum trainees. UI Counseling this fall is offering virtual and in-person support; group and individual therapy; relationship and couples counseling; and phone consultations among other things.
The UI has embedded counselors in some on-campus residential spaces, in athletics and in some colleges. And Wilson reported Thursday the UI recently implemented a phone-text-chat crisis and support line.
Contact the University of Iowa Support and Crisis Line
Call or text: 844-461-5420
Chat online, including anonymously, at: mentalhealth.uiowa.edu/ui-support-and-crisis-line
“The great news is it’s available at all times of the day and every day of the week,” she said. “Because it happens that students who are suffering from issues related to mental health don't do it at 8 in the morning. They don't do that noon. It's often at 2 in the morning or on the weekend, and we need to be ready to help them with all the services that we provide.”
In hopes of getting ahead of emergencies, Wilson said, the UI has told lawmakers it will use $1.7 million of its requested $4 million appropriations increase to retain and hire more mental health staff.
“The more we can do in the preventive side, the more we can prevent the crises that will ensue — but hopefully in smaller numbers,” she said. “Our goal is to get mental health counselors and professionals in every college, embed them close to where the students are.”
During Thursday’s discussion, UI Hancher Auditorium Executive Director Chuck Swanson noted the importance of faculty and staff mental health, too — thanking Wilson for focusing on the issue and for appreciation messages she’s sent since starting her tenure as the 22nd UI president in July.
“The better off we feel about each other and ourselves, the better we're going to be for the students,” Swanson said. “And so I just want to say, as a staff member, I appreciate you thinking about that.”
A National College Health Assessment survey of UI undergraduates in the spring — amid a pandemic-impacted academic year that forced most UI classes online — found 34 percent of students had at some point been diagnosed with anxiety and 27 had been diagnosed with depression.
Nearly 79 percent of respondents reported a moderate or high stress level in the last year, and 93 percent said at least one thing had been difficult or challenging — with the average undergraduate reporting about five stressors in the last 12 months.
The top stressor was procrastination — with 76 percent identifying it as such. Nearly 57 percent listed personal appearance as a stressor; 53 percent said academics; and 39 percent said they were stressed about someone else’s health.
In 2019, 18 percent of respondents listed someone else’s health as a stress. And that issue didn’t even make the list in 2017.
In the new survey, 11 percent of respondents said they attempted to harm themselves in the last year, and 2 percent said they had attempted suicide. In 2017, those percentages were 6 percent and 1 percent, respectively.
UI Student Wellness individual consults had been climbing in recent years — reaching 3,250 in the 2019-2020 academic year, including primarily in-person consultations at 2,830. That number fell last year to 1,921, with concerns about in-person interactions.
Only 79 of last year’s consults were in person, with 1,818 happening virtually. The majority of individual consultations involve drugs and alcohol, according to the UI student wellness reports of 2020 and 2021. But most online consults last year involved anxiety and depression.
In a section of the most recent UI undergraduate health assessment that addressed COVID-19 specifically, 25 percent of respondents said they had a loved one suffer long-term effects from the disease and 11 percent said a loved one had died from it.
During Thursday’s meeting, a community member asked what compelled the UI to focus more attention on mental health. Wilson said that while it’s embedded in the campus’ strategic plan, she also has personal convictions around the mental health needs of her community.
“I don't think you can be a leader today and ignore the challenges that we're facing around mental health,” she said. “And they're really pre-pandemic. Before the pandemic, national statistics tell us that 30 percent of students going to college come into a university with a diagnosis of depression, anxiety, or with some other mental health challenge.” With the pandemic, that has spiked nationally to 80 percent, she said.
“Right now, during the pandemic, many many more people are saying, ‘I'm anxious, I'm depressed, I don't know what the future is about,’” Wilson said. “So it's given us a window and an opportunity to shine more light on mental health and wellness.”
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