Whether it be from the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, increased societal pressures from the digital age, or other factors, the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and the Community College of Rhode Island, the three public universities in the state of Rhode Island have seen a large increase in students seeking out counseling services over the past three to five years.
From July 2021 through June 2022, the University of Rhode Island’s (URI) Counseling Center saw a little over 1,200 different students, according to Cory Clark, director of the counseling center. The university, which is the largest in the state of Rhode Island, had a total of 13,928 undergraduates enrolled for the fall 2021 semester, according to U.S. News and World Report.
Clark said that URI has been seeing an increase in students seeking out counseling support since 2018. In order to help more students, the university in August 2022 partnered with My SSP, an outside counseling website created by LifeWorks that provides 24/7 support via phone calls, video chats, text chat boxes and peer-to-peer support.
From August to December of 2022, Clark said that 870 URI students have used the program to get counseling support. Of those 870 students, Clark said that about 70% of them had never received counseling from the university before.
Clark said that the number one reason students seek out counseling at URI are for anxiety, followed by depression and relationship issues. This has changed over the course of about 10 years, as depression and relationship issues used to be the main reasons that students visited the center.
The Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) has six campuses across the state. In the fall 2021 semester, the college had 11,962 total students enrolled across those campuses, according to the CCRI website. Of those students, 4,736 were full-time students and 7,226 were part-time.
Their counseling center, according to their counseling center website, also uses My SSP as a tool to support their students. Their website also has written resources for students on combatting depression, with a list of six different pieces of advice for students.
Kate Roarr, interim director of the counseling center at Rhode Island College (RIC) echoed similar concerns as Clark at RIC. She said that over the course of the past three years, more and more students have been requesting to see a counselor at RIC’s center, for similar reasons.
Anxiety, depression and burnout are the top three reasons that students seek counseling at RIC, according to Roarr. These issues have also been impacted by situations of discrimination.
“I will also say that discrimination, while it is not a mental health issue in and of itself, does compound other mental health issues, and so that does come up for our students as well,” Roarr said.
Anxiety and depression are two mental illnesses that tend to go hand in hand, Clark said, due to the debilitating nature of anxiety in some situations.
“It’s tricky in the sense that anxiety can be so debilitating, of course, that interferes with someone’s functioning and ability to sort of enact or engage in life the way that they wish to, and then that becomes depressing. Then they can get depressed, and that sort of creates a little bit of intertwining in both challenges there,” Clark said.
Roarr and Clark attributed the increase in anxiety amongst students in part to the societal pressures of social media, something that most members of Generation Z participate in. According to a study done by the Morning Consult in December of 2022, 54% of Americans between the ages of 13 and 25 reported spending at least four hours daily on social media, with 38% reporting spending even more time than that on social media platforms.
“Social media, I think, puts a lot of pressure on students, not only to excel academically, but also to excel interpersonally, you know, and be liked and followed,” Clark said. “So then there’s more pressure on all these interactions that they’re having, which creates anxiety around things like ‘Can I do it?’ ‘Am I good enough?’ ‘Am I smart enough, funny enough, attractive enough?’”
These self-doubts, which are magnified due to social media, can interfere with students functioning, which then can result in a lack of success, which causes more anxiety and depression, Clark said, which he called a “pretty rough cycle.”
Both Roarr and Clark said that their respective counseling centers are seeing a shortage of counselors, with open positions and job postings unable to be filled. Due to this, both universities have a waitlist for students seeking counseling if they are unable to see them instantly.
Roarr said that RIC students will always be able to have an initial appointment with a counselor, however in some situations will be put on a waitlist for ongoing sessions. At URI, students can be put on a waitlist based on first inquiry, which is what led them to using outside resources like My SSP.
URI’s counseling center is not the only place for students to receive support on campus. The university also has a psychological consultation center, which is run by doctoral students, a couples and therapy clinic run by students studying to be Marriage and Family Therapists (MFT); and sometimes support can be found through Health Services, Clark said.
Additionally, there are resources such as student support and advocacy services through the Dean of Students office, as well as disability access and inclusion. They also coordinate with other student groups to provide additional support.
“I think in general, we’re working with different departments like CampusRec, the Gender and Sexuality Center and the Multicultural Center. So we’re trying to partner with groups, student groups, and these organizations to provide outreach and different events on campus to help bolster sort of connection and a larger span of support,” Clark said.
Other activities, such as group therapy sessions and on-campus events, have been implemented at RIC. Roarr notes that ongoing therapy groups can be hard to get off the ground due to scheduling challenges that come with RIC being a “commuter school.” Therapy groups can be very beneficial to students, she said.
In the fall 2021 semester, Rhode Island College had 5,252 undergraduate students enrolled, according to U.S. News and World Report. Of those 5,252 students, only 11% of them live on-campus, making it a school of majority commuter students.
At RIC, Roarr said that the counseling center holds “same day crisis slots” for students with urgent concerns. Students in crisis can call the office any weekday and request to be seen for a same day appointment. RIC also has a 24/7 phone line, the “RIC Hope Line,” that connects students to speak with an off-site counselor immediately, she said.
Both Roarr and Clark emphasized the importance of relationships and human interaction on mental health, especially with college students. Due to this importance, both universities have been working to try and implement more group activities and events on their respective campuses to form a sense of community amongst students.
Some events that URI’s counseling center will host to boost morale on campus are things like “fresh check day” and activities during National Eating Disorders Awareness (NEDA) Week, which was from February 28 to March 3 this year.
“Fresh check day involves probably 10 different departments, each with their own table and different sorts of activities so that folks can learn more about how to be better at caring for themselves and their mental health, so that’s great,” Clark said. “One of the booths is with CampusRec, where they do a ‘prescription exercise’ type of thing, so they will ‘prescribe’ what someone needs to do to improve their physical health, which, of course, has evidence in improving mental health.”
For NEDA week, URI’s counseling center alongside P.I.N.K (Powerful, Independent, Notoriously, Knowledgeable) Women, a multicultural student organization run through the Multicultural Student Services Center, had an event based around looking culturally at the pressures that certain cultures feel about body image and eating, Clark said. Additionally, the Gender and Sexuality Center at URI had a talk around body image concerns in their community.
When the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all people, not just students, were robbed of the sense of community and relationships that are so vital to a positive mental state, Roarr and Clark said, which is part of the reason they believe there has been such an increase in students seeking mental health support at their universities.
A positive of the pandemic, both Clark and Roarr said, is that it has helped to de-stigmatize mental health for everyone, not just students.
“Now you see all celebrities and athletes and different people coming out and talking about their own mental health so much more openly and freely, so now people are like, ‘Oh, it’s okay, and I think I will go check things out and try to get some support,’” Clark said.
Since mental health is more commonly talked about since the pandemic, RIC’s counseling center is currently hiring to try and increase the amount of support that students can receive on their campus, Roarr said. URI is also currently hiring more counselors at their center, Clark said.
Overall, Clark and Roarr said that both URI and RIC are constantly working to find new ways to better support their students, whether it be through activities and fairs, hiring new counselors, or directing them to outside resources.
“We really try to make sure that students can access the care that they need. And even if we don’t have the space to do ongoing care from this exact perspective, for that exact student, we will try to at least meet with them and try to figure out, you know, what can we do in the meantime,” Roarr said.
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