Counseling and Psychological Services Leads the Way on Mental Health

Posted: October 22, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Counseling and Psychological Services office
Mason’s Counseling and Psychological Services staff are looking to expand programs and services to address the needs of students with psychiatric, psychological and emotional issues.
Photo by Nicolas Tan

By Devon Madison

The college experience isn’t what it used to be. Expectations are higher than ever: Some studies suggest the amount of information a student needs to learn in order to graduate from college doubles every five years. College campuses are seeing a broader cross-section of the population than previously. Family structures have changed, and many young adults leave for college without having learned sufficient coping mechanisms.

Such changes have had a strong effect on mental health. Experts agree that mental illness is on the rise on college campuses across the nation — the tragedy at Virginia Tech last spring was its most horrific manifestation to date.

Jeff Pollard
Jeff Pollard, CAPS director
Photo by Willow Bodman

According to Jeffery Pollard, director of Mason’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), university students across the country are stressed as never before. “We stress people physically, socially and intellectually,” says Pollard. “If someone has the potential to have a mental illness, it’s more likely to show up here.”

Severity of Mental Illness Increasing

Many of these changes in the landscape of mental illness on college campuses have occurred over the past 10 to 15 years. Most institutions across the nation are seeing changes on a few fronts. One of the most pressing concerns is that many of the students seeking help have more severe pathology. CAPS counselors, for example, have seen a rise in serious illnesses such as bipolar disease and major depressive illness. Another common trend is that counseling centers are seeing people with multiple diagnoses. It is not uncommon to diagnose someone with a drug addiction and major depression.

Last fall, Pollard and his colleagues were looking to expand programs and services to address these issues, especially the severity of the mental illness cases they saw coming into the center. Seeing that the only CAPS on-staff, part-time psychiatrist was unable to meet demands, Pollard pressed for funding a full-time psychiatrist, a goal that will be achieved by the beginning of the spring 2008 semester.

Another trend CAPS counselors are seeing is that more people with psychiatric, psychological and emotional issues are seeking help. In the 2006–07 academic year alone, CAPS saw a 16 percent increase in intake over 2005–06. So far this fall, CAPS has experienced almost a 40 percent increase in intake compared to the same period last year.

APS brochures and business cards
In addition to providing psychological counseling, CAPS offers students many workshops to improve study habits and skills.
Photo by Nicolas Tan

Like many college counseling centers across the nation that are under financial constraints, CAPS has been trying to find creative ways to serve the students who need help. One of the programs the center began planning last fall came to fruition this semester. For the first time, pre-doctoral interns are being trained to counsel students to help increase intake. And when a licensed psychiatrist, counselor, therapist or intern isn’t available, CAPS staff members refer students to the proper practitioner off campus.

According to Pollard, counseling is so important because not only can it help students deal with their problems, but it can also help improve their rate of graduation. Studies show that those who receive 10 sessions of counseling are 14 percent more likely to graduate than the rest of the student population. For those who receive 12 to 16 visits with a counselor, the rate jumps up to an 18 percent higher graduation rate.

Pollard, understandably, is excited about this. “These are students who have psychiatric and psychological difficulties, and the complexity of those difficulties is getting greater,” he says. “And yet they’re more likely to graduate. In many ways, these are heroic students. It gives me chills sometimes to think of some of the students that I’ve worked with over the years and seen what they went through, and [then] watch them walk across the stage. It is just absolutely inspiring.”

Mason CARES

Training programs in dealing with suicidal ideation (thoughts about suicide) that Pollard and his colleagues have been planning for a year have also begun this fall. Mason CARES (Campus Awareness, Referral and Education for Suicide Prevention) is a training program that teaches how to identify an individual who may be having difficulties, how to approach that person and how to make a referral so that he or she can get help. The three-hour training program is open to faculty, staff and students.

In addition, a two-day training program in suicidal ideation treatment is available to Mason mental health care professionals. All staff members in CAPS have been trained in this treatment protocol. “We’re doing two things on this front: we’re training folks to identify people who have suicidal ideation, and we’ve become much better at treating it ourselves,” says Pollard.

Not only does CAPS serve those experiencing mental illness, but the center also provides a wide range of services for students with a variety of counseling needs. Every day, counselors help people talk about their relationship problems, cope with developmental difficulties, improve their study strategies and more.

Whatever issue a student may be confronting, whether it be academic or personal, Pollard wants students to know that CAPS is there to help and will keep all student information strictly confidential.

“This is the place to talk about things that you’ve always wanted to be able to talk about but have never had the opportunity,” he says. “We do this because people can change, because it increases their vision, because it increases their chances of graduation and their chances of success in life. That’s why we’re here.”

An interdisciplinary panel discussion, “Mental Health Issues: Campus Implications from Policy, Legal and Academic Perspectives” will be held on Monday, Oct. 29, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. on the Arlington Campus, Original Building, Room 329. All are invited.

Christopher Moy, director of disability services at Mason, will moderate. Panelists are

  • Alison Malmon, founder and executive director of Active Minds Inc., the nation’s only organization dedicated to utilizing the student voice to raise mental health awareness on the college campus
  • Karen Bower, a public-interest lawyer for more than a decade, most recently as supervising attorney and clinical law professor with the D.C. Law Students in Court Program
  • Howard Kallem, a senior equal opportunity specialist with Mason’s Office of Equity and Diversity Services
  • Adrienne Barna, associate director of Mason’s Counseling and Psychological Services

For more information, contact Lori Cohen, 703-993-4495, lcohen@gmu.edu.

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