Liz McCormick Published

W.Va. Higher Ed Counselors Asking For Help In Mental Health Crisis

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West Virginia college counselors are overwhelmed and asking for support from the state legislature.

Dr. T. Anne Hawkins, director of the West Virginia University (WVU) Carruth Counseling Center, gave a presentation Sunday on mental health in higher education to the Joint Standing Committee on Education.

“College counseling centers, around the state and around the country, are one of the most popular places on the campus,” Hawkins told lawmakers. “And they have been for the last 10 years. We increasingly are seeing more and more students.”

From 2010 to 2020, Hawkins said there was a “dramatic increase” in depression and anxiety amongst West Virginia college students. She noted, however, there was a decline in substance use during that time.

Hawkins said since the start of the pandemic, WVU’s crisis intervention went up by 36 percent. WVU, on average, provides almost 500 counseling sessions a week to students.

“This year, we will have served about 10.7 percent of the student population,” Hawkins said. “This is pretty tremendous. Thirty percent of our clients, our students, report self injury, 31 percent report suicidal thoughts, and 13 percent report a previous suicide attempt. Think about that – 13 percent.”

Hawkins told lawmakers she is “very concerned” about the nature of mental health in college students today.

“The counseling center staff are weary, there’s no question about it,” she said. “Because we’re operating as if we are in a psychiatric emergency room.”

Hawkins recently conducted a survey with some of the state’s college and university counseling centers. She said across the state, counseling center directors want to see more clinicians placed throughout the state.

She urged lawmakers to come up with incentive programs – similar to the state’s nursing and teaching programs – to get more clinicians to stay in West Virginia, receive good pay, and be placed in both K-12 and college institutions to help with the growing need.

“The focus should be decreasing stigma, enhancing and expanding digital and mental health services. We’ve got to work upstream. We’ve got to increase connection and a sense of belonging,” Hawkins said. “We’ve drifted off course, and that was beginning before the pandemic. We’ve got to create a culture that values well being.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports in 2020, suicide among people ages 10-14 and 25-34 was the second leading cause of death in the nation. That same year, for people ages 10-64, it was among the top nine leading causes of death.

The CDC also reports nationwide, the average anxiety severity scores increased 13 percent from Aug. to Dec. 2020 and then decreased 26.8 percent from Dec. 2020 to June 2021. Similar increases and decreases occurred in depression severity scores, according to the CDC.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for help.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting with support from Charleston Area Medical Center and Marshall Health.