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IOWA CITY — In response to widespread demand for more mental health services across campus, the University of Iowa is planning to hire eight new counselors — including at least one who will be stationed in an east-side residence hall.
The additions will bolster the UI Counseling Service's existing team of 12 by 67 percent and move the institution out of last place in mental health staffing among Big Ten universities, UI Counseling Service Director Barry Schreier said.
But the hiring process is expected to take more than a year — with four new counselors expected on campus by fall 2016 and another four by fall 2017.
'We want to be deliberate and careful and talk about space and decide who we want to hire,' Schreier said, adding that he will be looking for prospects with specific skills in demand at Iowa. 'We want to be thoughtful.'
Demand for mental health services across all three of Iowa's public universities has been climbing, with administrators in January reporting the number of students seeking help up 10 percent year over year at UI and Iowa State University and up 13 percent at University of Northern Iowa.
Iowa State in the fall also reported plans to hire two more mental health professionals and renovate space to increase capacity to serve more students.
At UI, Schreier said his department still is tallying numbers of students who sought mental health services this academic year. But he's confident they will show another jump.
'We have had an increase this year over last, which was an increase over the previous years,' he said.
That rise includes students seeking group therapy, individual therapy and walk-in help, which Schreier said his department started offering in hopes of better responding to urgencies and emergencies. He said students are looking for help across a broad spectrum of issues including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and alcohol and drug abuse.
'I can tell you that of the students walking in, more than 50 percent are presenting with diagnosed depression or anxiety,' he said.
Because several specific cohorts of students seem to demand more services than others, including freshmen, Schreier said several new counselors will be embedded in those at-risk communities.
One counselor already has set up office in the College of Dentistry, one of the highest risk populations for suicide locally and nationally. And Schreier said he's hiring counselors to embed in the Department of Athletics — in the Richard O. Jacobson Athletic Building — and among freshmen in Stanley Hall, which is connected to Currier Hall and neighbors Burge Hall on the east side of campus.
'We have a campus split by a river, and the thing we get the lowest satisfaction on is our location,' Schreier said about the UI Counseling Service's offices in the Student Health building on the west side of the Iowa River. 'Housing someone in an east side residence hall will better serve our first-year students.'
That group has been turning out in larger numbers for a variety of mental health offerings, and oftentimes, Schreier said, freshmen concerns fall to residence hall advisers.
'We want to be of more immediate assistance to the residence hall staff,' he said, stressing that entrenching counselors among the students they serve is different from establishing a satellite location at the Iowa Memorial Union, for example.
'They are actually housed in the cohort,' he said.
Those two new embedded counselors should be on campus for the upcoming fall semester, along with another two likely stationed in the main office, according to Schreier.
Worst in the Big Ten
The additional hires will move UI up among its list of peers in total counseling staff and staff-to-student ratios. Schreier said the university's 12 full-time employees is worst in the Big Ten, and its ratio of one staffer per 2,750 is second from the bottom.
And — if national trends are any indication — the need for mental health services only is going to grow. A 2015 American Freshmen Survey that analyzed responses from 141,189 full-time first-year students at 199 two- and four-year institutions showed only 50.6 percent rated their emotional health as in the 'highest 10 percent' or 'above average' as compared with the average person their age.
That was the lowest rate since the survey added the emotional health category in 1985.
A 2014 survey administered by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors showed anxiety as the top concern among college students — with an average of 47 percent presenting with that concern — followed by depression, at 40 percent, and relationship issues, at 34 percent.
An average of 18 percent of students seeking mental health services reported suicidal thoughts are behaviors, according to the survey.
Many of those numbers are up from the association's 2007 survey, which showed an average of 37 percent of student patients reporting anxiety and 14 percent reporting suicidal thoughts.
During a January presentation to a Board of Regents campus safety and security subcommittee, Schreier said more UI students are coming to the counseling offices with histories of suicide attempts, self-harm, psychotropic medicine use, and substance abuse.
Of those receiving services, he said, about half are on psychotropic medication — 30 percent of whom arrived on campus with it already in hand.
'This has been an issue'
Earlier this week, during a student-led discussion around the UI's new strategic plan and campus priorities going forward, UI student Lyric Harris gave voice to the student call for help.
'One thing I'd be really excited to see is better accessibility to mental health resources, in terms of counselors and things like that,' she told faculty members leading the discussion. 'I know from personal experience and experiences from my friends and others here that this has been an issue.'
UI President Bruce Harreld, during a Board of Regents meeting last week, shared the campus' push to increase mental health services, and UI Vice President for Student Life Tom Rocklin confirmed for The Gazette that administrators are making it a priority.
'The UI Counseling Service is working to make its help more readily available to students,' he said in an email.
More counselors will mean a variety of things across campus, according to Schreier, including enabling quicker responses to immediate student concerns. Right now, he said, students might have to wait two to three weeks to get an appointment.
'If we could get that down to within a business week, that would be a great success,' he said.
A larger staff also could mean more training for faculty and students — those who are interacting with students daily — and more focused services.
'We have talked about expanding our services around eating disorders and drug and alcohol abuse,' Schreier said.