A national increase in suicide rates of college students have prompted University of Mississippi administrators to review ways to adequately address this issue and provide resources to students with mental health concerns.
Suicide is now the second most common cause of death among college students, according to the American College Health Association. The rates of suicide among 15 to 24-year-olds have tripled since the 1950s and reached a 30-year-high in 2017.
UM authorities say they have witnessed a trend in mental health issues during their tenure of employment.
“We’ve known for 10 to 20 years about a steady rise in demand, not only for mental health services, but also in severity of the types of cases and expectations for treating those cases,” said Bud Edwards, director of the University Counseling Center. “It is a nationwide trend on university campuses.”
Bud Edwards outside the University Counseling Center in Lester HallIf a student at UCC is being treated for anxiety/depression and a need for medication is indicated, that person will be referred to the University Health Center. Travis Yates, director of the Health Center, has worked there for 10 years.
“I can tell you there has absolutely been an uptick in the patients we see here,” he said. “When I first came here, I didn’t see a student with anxiety and depression but once or twice a week, and now it’s a daily occurrence.”
Because of these demands, Yates said some students who are admitted for psychiatric consultation are forced to wait three weeks. Wait times vary depending on the nature of the case.
“If it’s a more complicated issue, I will refer them directly to a psychiatrist and a higher level of care,” he said. “I know it’s not the best model, but it’s the best we can do with the resources we have.”
At a meeting in February with the Division of Student Affairs, Yates gave a presentation on the escalating needs of mental health issues. “I presented a trend upward on a national basis, and the fact that there’s just not enough providers,” he said.
Even with more planning and budgeting, he said he has limited space to offer services. “Even if I had more providers, I don’t have any place for them in this building,” he said. “I would need millions of dollars to build a new center.”
Edwards said there is an increase in at-risk individuals seeking treatment because mental health problems have captured the national consciousness.
“In some ways, you could say we’re a victim of our own success,” he said. “In providing good services, more people realize what those services are and access those at greater numbers.”
The University Counseling Center partners with agencies specializing in a variety of health and wellness topics. In 2017, the Associated Student Body passed a resolution and a bill for additional counselors.
Monetary donations through the UM Foundation allowed the UCC to hire new staff personnel. There have been two donations specific to suicide prevention that the UCC will use to increase training for prevention in the fall.
“These pieces coming together give us the best chance of identifying factors that we need to know to refer a student, address those issues, and get to a place where we feel better about students’ abilities to manage their life and not make those choices,” Edwards said.
Although upper level administration has been responsive, Edwards said he is aware there is still an issue of resource allocation and budget development.
“Being a public institution means we have to lobby for greater resources from the state,” he said. “Fighting the fight in Jackson is part of the issue to get money to higher education.”
The University Police Department’s website provides a daily crime log as part of public record. “Suicides/attempted suicides” are classified as crime reports.
According to the daily log, the 2016 records, when compared to 2015, indicated a significant drop in “suicides/attempted suicides,” from 17 to 4. In 2017, the number dropped from 4 to 3. In 2018, a single of “suicide/attempted suicide” was logged in January.
“When it goes into our record management system, it’s entered in as ‘suicide/attempted suicide’ with a crime code,” said Thelma Curry, captain of support operations for the UPD.
Edwards is concerned with reports of suicide being lumped in with police numbers. “I don’t want there to be any criminal association with mental health,” he said.
Edwards said he wants the university to understand more than just raw data, and he works to educate students on prevalence. “I’m more concerned with my campus community knowing what the deal is than fitting a model for numbers reporting,” he said.
Kendall Brown, the lieutenant of administrative services, said the UPD does mandatory reporting of suicide, but doesn’t trivialize the sensitive issue. “From the standpoint of the police department, we know we are dealing with real people, and that a lot of the issues that cause that are health issues.”
Curry said students should be informed of UM mental health services and treatment options. “The most important thing you can do is get information out there, but discussing the available resources is also important so that people can get the help they need,” she said.
A considerable portion of mental health-related education and training is helping students be more comfortable engaging in conversations about these issues. “The best help we can get is from the students themselves,” Edwards said. “The culture on campus doesn’t change unless the students change it.”
It’s important that students build awareness of mental health to break down negative public perceptions and reduce stigma. “If students could help all of us who are preaching those messages, then I think we would see a significant shift regarding mental health,” Edwards said.
If you’re concerned about a student or UM community member, you may call (662)-915-3784 to speak with a representative from the University Counseling Center.
For a database of resources at the University, visit https://counseling.olemiss.edu/.
For immediate help or a local referral, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK, or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
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