Iowa universities face rising mental health needs

Schools respond to rising demand for services

The Pentacrest, including the Old Capitol, Jessup Hall, Macbride Hall, MacLean Hall, and Schaeffer Hall, in an aerial ph
The Pentacrest, including the Old Capitol, Jessup Hall, Macbride Hall, MacLean Hall, and Schaeffer Hall, in an aerial photograph in Iowa City on Thursday, July 14, 2016. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

AMES — Demand for mental health services on college campuses nationwide has spiked over the past decade, and the same is true at Iowa’s public universities, according to a report before the Board of Regents on Wednesday.

Compounding the increase in students seeking help at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa is the degree of services they seek. More students are arriving on campus already using counseling or psychiatric services they started during middle or high school.

“We see a higher severity of student needs around mental health, and definitely that increased demand and static resources has created a challenge to expand services on our campuses,” ISU Assistant Vice President for Student Health and Wellness Erin Baldwin told the board.

Boosting resources and support for all types of student health and well-being services is paramount, according the regents’ mental health report, in that it’s “inextricably linked to student academic success, retention and persistence to graduation.”

Research presented Wednesday shows stress and anxiety are the top factors affecting undergraduate academic performance at Iowa’s three public universities, according to National College Health Assessment data. Also making the top 10 are sleep difficulties and depression, with 23 percent of students reporting sleep-related issues at Iowa State, and 20 percent at the UI reporting depression-related struggles.

All three campuses are addressing the growing mental health needs of their respective student bodies with a variety of initiatives and programmatic innovations.

The University of Iowa, for example, is adding suicide-prevention training to its slate of onboarding requirements for new students. Every incoming first-year student will be required to take the training that will, among other things, provide information on how to spot signs a person is suicidal and help, according to UI Counseling Service Director Barry Schreier.


Suicide-related indicators jumped on the UI campus, according to the most-recent 2018 National College Health Assessment report. The percentage of students reporting self-harm in the past 12 months rose from 5.7 percent in 2017 to 9 percent; the percentage who reported seriously considering suicide spike from 8.4 percent to 13.4 percent; and the rate of those who actually attempted suicide more than doubled from 1.4 percent to 4 percent.

UI additionally is providing “student in distress” training for faculty and staff and increasing its efforts to embed counselors across campuses — currently with six locations, including residence halls and colleges.

Iowa State has rolled out several initiatives and campaigns, including programming for “Body Image and Eating Disorder Awareness Week,” which started Monday. It’s employed a Crisis Text Line and tapped a suicide prevention grant.

It’s added five new practitioners, a mental health advocate on the ISU police force, and a well-being space in the library.

UNI has added self-care workshops; liaison counselors for international, transgender and minority students; and “student in distress” and companion guides.

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