Colleges across the country are failing to keep up with a troubling spike in demand for mental health care — leaving students stuck on waiting lists for weeks, unable to get help.

STAT surveyed dozens of universities about their mental health services. From major public institutions to small elite colleges, a striking pattern emerged: Students often have to wait weeks just for an initial intake exam to review their symptoms. The wait to see a psychiatrist who can prescribe or adjust medication — often a part-time employee — may be longer still.

Students on many campuses are so frustrated that they launched a petition last month demanding expanded services. They plan to send it to 20 top universities, including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, MIT, and Columbia, where seven students have died this school year from suicide and suspected drug overdose.

“Students are turned away every day from receiving the treatment they need, and multiple suicide attempts and deaths go virtually ignored each semester,” the petition reads. More than 700 people have signed; many have left comments about their personal experiences trying to get counseling at college. “I’m signing because if a kid in crisis needs help they should not have to wait,” one wrote.

STAT requested information from 98 campuses across the country and received answers from 50 of those schools. Among the findings:

At Northwestern University, it can take up to three weeks to get a counseling appointment. At Washington University in St. Louis, the wait time runs nearly 13 days, on average, in the fall semester.

At the University of Washington in Seattle, delays in getting care are so routine, the wait time is posted online; it’s consistently hovered between two and three weeks in recent months. In Florida, where educators are pressing the state legislature for millions in new funding to hire counselors, the wait times at University of Florida campuses can stretch two weeks.

Smaller schools aren’t exempt, either: At Carleton College, a liberal arts campus in Northfield, Minn., the wait list can stretch up to 10 days.

A few weeks’ wait may not seem like much. After all, it often takes that long, or longer, for adults to land a medical appointment with a specialist. But such wait times can be brutal for college students — who may be away from home for the first time, without a support network, and up against more academic and peer pressure than ever before. Every class, every meal, every party can become a hurdle for students struggling with eating disorders, depression, and other issues.

Many counseling centers say that they are often overwhelmed during the most stressful times for students, such as midterms and finals. Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., for example, reports a wait time of up to a month during busy periods.

“I was just looking at that date on the calendar and thinking, ‘If I can just make it one more day.’…I just couldn’t hang on.”

Constance Rodenbarger, student at Indiana University

In most instances, STAT’s examination found, students who say that they are suicidal are seen at once, and suicide hotlines are available for after-hours emergencies. But some students are uncomfortable acknowledging an impulse to harm themselves, and thus get pushed to the end of the line, along with undergrads struggling with concerns ranging from acute anxiety to gender identity issues.

Campus counselors are acutely aware that they’re leaving students stranded but say they don’t have the resources to do better.

“You’re making sure people are safe in the moment,” said Ben Locke, who runs a national college counseling network and directs counseling services at Pennsylvania State University. “But you’re not treating the depression or the panic attacks or the eating disorders.”

‘I needed to see someone’

Constance Rodenbarger, now in her third year at Indiana University, first sought help at the counseling center in her second semester, as she struggled to deal with an abusive relationship on top of long-term depression. The next appointment was at least two weeks away.

“I was just looking at that date on the calendar and thinking, ‘If I can just make it one more day,’ but then it became just one more hour, and then one more minute,” she said.

“I just couldn’t hang on.”

The day before her appointment, on Nov. 17, 2014, she tried to kill herself.

Her roommate found her, and Rodenbarger was rushed to the hospital. She called the counseling center from the hospital to say she wouldn’t be able to make it in the next day.

“When I called that day and said, ‘I need to see someone,’ I needed to see someone,” she said.

Indiana University now says it connects with all students who seek counseling within two days. But that connection can involve simply setting up an appointment — for up to three weeks away.

“We, like centers across the country, are working on expanding our staff,” said Nancy Stockton, the director of Indiana University’s counseling center. “We certainly need more clinicians.”

Indiana University and several other large schools said they employ one counselor for roughly every 1,500 undergraduates. That’s at the high end of the range recommended by national experts. The numbers reported in an annual national survey are even more stark: In 2015, large campuses reported an average of one licensed mental health provider per 3,500 students.

When students do get in to campus counseling centers, most see therapists, social workers, or perhaps psychologists.

Just 6 in 10 college counseling centers have a psychiatrist available, even part-time, to prescribe or adjust medications, according to the annual survey, conducted by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors. That’s a serious mismatch, given that about one-quarter of college students who seek mental health services take psychotropic medications.

“You’re not treating the depression or the panic attacks or the eating disorders.”

Ben Locke, counseling director, Pennsylvania State University

There are other hurdles, too. While many schools tout free counseling, they often cap that benefit. Students at Brown University, for instance, get seven free sessions a year. At Indiana University, students get just two free sessions and then pay $30 per visit.

And it can be hard for students to develop a consistent relationship with a therapist when so many college mental health providers work limited hours. At Wellesley College, for example, four of the school’s nine mental health providers are currently part-time.

While dozens of colleges provided STAT with detailed information about their mental health resources, the public relations staff at others, including Georgetown University, Dartmouth College, and Grinnell College, refused to provide information after repeated requests.

Others, such as Harvard and Yale, declined to provide specific staffing information. In some cases, such as with the US Merchant Marine Academy, media relations staff expressed discomfort about being compared to other colleges.

Columbia University told STAT it employs the equivalent of 41 full-time counselors for just over 6,000 students, which would be an enviable staffing level, far better than most other schools its size. Columbia said its wait time varies, but did not provide a specific range. All enrollment numbers come from U.S. News and World Report.

A spike in crisis cases

Demand for counseling on college campuses has been rising steadily for several years.

And the latest data, released in January, show a recent spike in cases of students in acute crisis.

One in three students who sought counseling last year said they’d seriously considered suicide at some point in their lives, according to a report out last month from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health. That’s up from fewer than 1 in 4 students in 2010.

And those are just the students who admit they’re in crisis. Untold others don’t know how to respond when an employee at the counseling center asks if it’s an emergency. They may downplay their situation, telling themselves others are in more dire condition or it must not be a true crisis if they have the presence of mind to ask for help.

That’s what happened to Adrienne Baer during the fall of 2015, in her junior year at the University of Maryland. Both her grandparents had recently died. So had a high school friend.

“It was a lot to wrap my head around,” she said. With a push from friends, she decided to call the counseling center. “I didn’t exactly have an education on what their resources were, but I got one,” Baer said.

Baer said she was asked on the phone whether she was experiencing an emergency. She didn’t know how to answer that: No one gave her a definition. So she said no and was shunted to the end of the waiting list. It would be two weeks before she could see a counselor.

She dashed off an angry email to the counseling center the minute she hung up the phone:

“I am currently struggling with the issues I wanted to discuss with a therapist or counselor, but even I don’t know how I’ll be in 24 hours, let alone 2 weeks.…

I don’t know if all that constitutes an emergency or if I need to have a mental breakdown to be seen prior to a two week wait but I am seriously disappointed in the lack of availability in mental health resources.”

That got their attention. She was given a quick appointment for an initial assessment. But for continuing care, Baer was put back on the waiting list. It would be five weeks before she could see a psychiatrist who could prescribe medication.

“I had to wait. There was nothing I could do,” said Baer, now a senior. “It was just a roller coaster that I couldn’t control.”

Sharon Kirkland-Gordon, director of the University of Maryland’s counseling center, said she knows her staff can’t keep up with demand, though she said they’re “working overtime to meet the needs of students.”

Requests for appointments shot up 16 percent last year alone, she said.

Nationally, about six in 10 undergrads seeking counseling are women, and 5 percent are international students. There are roughly an equal number of freshman, sophomores, juniors, and seniors.

Kirkland-Gordon has started to bring on part-time seasonal staff to help handle the workload. Many campuses also use therapists who are still in training work one-on-one with students, as long as they report to licensed counselors.

“If we had a magic wand, I think you’d probably hear the same thing from all of us counseling directors,” said Kirkland-Gordon. Their wish list is simple: more resources.

“I had to wait. There was nothing I could do. It was just a roller coaster that I couldn’t control.”

Adrienne Baer, student at University of Maryland

No one is entirely sure why student demand for mental health services is rising; factors may include increased pressure from parents or peers on social media, or a difficult job market. Another possible reason: increased awareness about the risk of mental health conditions.

In the past decade, the federal government has given out tens of millions in grants to suicide prevention programs that raised awareness of risk factors. A generation of students trained by such programs is now in college — and seeking help when they feel warning signs. But not every college got a bump in funding to meet the surge in demand.

“If you want a perfect recipe to generate reduced availability of treatment, that would be it,” said Locke, of Penn State, who also serves as director of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, a national network.

Locke notes that college health centers would never require a student with strep throat to wait two weeks for an appointment. Yet that’s what’s happening to many students with anxiety, depression, and other serious mental health concerns. “It puts the student’s academic career, and potentially their life, at risk,” he said.

As for Baer, she said she made it through that stressful semester by leaning on friends at school and family back in Pennsylvania. She wonders what would’ve happened to an international student or to a freshman without a reliable support network.

“I do feel like I fell through the cracks,” she said, “but I feel like I fell onto a safety net that other people might not have.”

A college president sounds the alarm

In an era when colleges are ranked by the number of their professors and the quality of their food — or whether their gyms house rock-climbing walls — it can be tough for the counseling centers to make a case for more resources.

Some turn to quick fixes, touting “stress-busting” programs like bringing in puppies for students to pet during midterms or handing out free cookies in the library during finals.

Others are making a concerted effort to respond to the surging demand.

The wait times at Ohio State University were so alarming to Dr. Michael Drake — a physician who stepped into the president’s office in 2014 — that he hired more than a dozen new counselors. That pushed the school’s ratio down to one provider for roughly every 1,100 undergraduates.

“We were doing it to really smooth the pathway of success for students,” Drake said. National data suggest the additional providers will help; 7 in 10 students who seek counseling say the mental health care improved their academic performance.

The University of California system moved to update counseling services in 2014, as wait lists grew and students with acute needs sought care. It took another year to get a dedicated funding stream to hire more counselors, in the form of increased student fees.

“Things start to back up like a traffic jam,” said Gary Dunn, director of counseling and psychological services for the University of California, Santa Cruz. “A lot can happen in four or five weeks during a quarter in college. It really wasn’t OK to have that delay in place.”

Students who have lived through mental health crises welcome more staff. But they also urge better training so that everyone on campus knows to treat mental health concerns as seriously, and with as much empathy, as a physical injury.

Nick, who asked that his last name not be used, was diagnosed with depression before college and had a difficult transition to his freshman year at Ithaca College in upstate New York. “I had no idea how to cope with all of it and I floundered a bit,” he said in an interview.

He sought help early on — during orientation — because he knew he’d likely need it. But he said he was bounced between two counselors and had difficulty getting appointments that fit into his schedule. In the end, he had to pay for a private mental health specialist off campus.

“Things start to back up like a traffic jam. A lot can happen in four or five weeks…It really wasn’t OK to have that delay in place.”

Gary Dunn, counseling director, University of California

Ithaca did not respond to requests for information on its mental health services, saying its counseling center staff was busy. At the time he sought care, Nick said there were just two counselors for the school’s 7,000 students.

“I was so badly handled. Not by any fault of their own, they were just woefully underprepared,” he said.

This year, by contrast, he had to take time off for a surgery. Getting help with a physical injury was a breeze, he said.

“The administration and professors have been much more understanding and willing to help when it’s something tangible and physical,” he said, “when the doctors can say, ‘Here’s what’s wrong with you and here’s how you can fix it.’”

Drawing lessons from trauma

Rodenbarger, the Indiana University student, is still feeling the echoes of her struggles to get mental health help on campus. Her suicide attempt cost her both her job and her off-campus apartment. The medication she was put on cost her a pilot’s license.

But she is recovering — with the help of a mental health provider off campus. She’s easing off the medication. She’s on track to graduate in the summer of 2018 with two degrees, a fine arts degree in printmaking and another in astronautics.

She’s also excited to have seen the school expand its walk-in services for students in need of urgent mental health care. It’s a step forward — and she wants to see more like it.

“Had I gotten help when I reached out for it,” she said, “it would never have gotten to the level that it did.”

Graphics designed by Jennifer Keefe.

This story was updated on February 13 with new data from Wellesley College.

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  • The reality is that this problem cannot be solved by math. There is a critical shortage of board certified general psychiatrists in the United States, about 50,000 total. Pair this with the fact that 20% of matriculating first year college students, about 650,000 after accounting for dropouts, come to college with a classifiable DSM V mental illness, and you can quickly see that the system can’t crank out psychotherapists fast enough. That number may be higher since some of the dropouts are undoubtedly for mental health reasons. I know that this violates basic HIPAA but it would be of great service to the student and their family if it were known to the university that the student was in therapy when he/she matriculated instead of waiting for the first crisis to emerge. Of course this would become known only after acceptance. The school would have the contact information for the therapist, regular and emergency, and if this became SOP a lot of problems could be prevented before the student threatens to jump off the roof of the dorm.

  • I’m not sure U of I was being truthful in their response- their own website says “The Counseling Center offers primarily short-term counseling, but we do provide referrals to the community when students could benefit from longer term services.” So not unlimited sessions…

  • I transferred to Ohio State University in 2015 (so after this article notes that they recognized they were seriously lacking counselors), and even I had a ton of trouble getting in to see any counselors. I would call in to make an appointment, be told that no one was available and that I’d be put on a waiting list. I was never given a time-frame of when someone would become available, and I was never called back or contacted that it was my turn. Once when I called, I was basically told that I would have to be put on a waiting list for the NEXT semester. Again, never heard back from anyone.
    I guess the irony here is that I myself was a psych major, and ended up having to drop out. My grades suffered because I was constantly overwhelmed, and had trouble dealing with my depression. (I also dropped out for financial reasons). Colleges will tell you that you have the option to see a private therapist, and even give you a list of local ones. But when you’re already going into a ton of debt to attend a school, where health services are supposed to be included…It’s not really fair to ask students to pay even more money to see someone else.

    And for some reason, people still scoff at Psychology majors, saying that it’s a useless or bad field to major in, despite the fact that we obviously need more people in this field.

  • A recent article in Time Magazine looked at current high school students and suggested that demand for counseling service will likely increase in coming years.

  • I so agree! This is an area those of us in the community/private practice area could be used for, and appropriately, but are seldom referred to.

  • I am sorry when anyone suffers. These young kids do seem to have a lot of mental
    Health problems. Examples-safe spaces, shutting down free speech

  • First I must say I have watched what happens to young people who are forced to leave home and make decisions on their own before their brain is ready. 18year old is not the same for all people. We know that the brain developed in stages. We know that the frontal lobe is not ready for everyone to rely on it for accurate decision making yet. So student should have a psych evaluation before leaving home. Second student who are majoring in mental health studies should be taught how to recognize ‘stat’ mental health situations of their peers. They can assist in getting them to the right people sooner . God bless. Thank you

  • Sorry, Kim. My parents didn’t have a whole lot of time to work on my social and emotional issues. My dad was an esteemed surgeon who wielded a scalpel by day and a belt buckle by night when I got out of line. Not exactly modern parenting, I admit. The only things he and my mom “worked on” was memorizing Proverbs 13:24. “spare the rod and spoil the child”. That’s what the good book said. They also praised my accomplishments when they were EARNED. So my self esteem came from real accomplishment, so that I didn’t grow up with an overly developed sense of self, unlike today’s snowflake students into whose heads are stuffed fake esteem based on nothing concrete, only to be deflated when they hit college. I owe a debt of gratitude to my private school headmaster, who used to row crew for Oxford University. Whenever one of us misbehaved we were commanded to march to the front of the room, where he kept his old paddle. The next command was “grab your ankles”, and THWAACK!. Lessons well learned.

    • Truly sorry for your childhood experiences. But ascribing anyone who was not abused as “special snowflakes” is just plain wrong and offensive. Learning empathy for another’s situation is always best. If not for the concept of kindness for the sake of kindness, but self preservation. These “special snowflakes” are all of our futures…someday they will be your judge and juror, surgeon and caregiver. Best of luck.

    • Spare the rod does not mean beat your child with a rod. The rod means to guide them like a shepherd. Look at the pressure we put on kids – it starts with getting them into the right preschool, the athletic travel team before they are 10. Then comes the PSAT tutoring, AP courses, etc. Parents push kids to get into a prestigious college so they can brag instead of a college that fits the child’s needs. They are exhausted at 18. What do we expect?

  • Connie, don’t be shy about reading your reviews. I do it all the time. A little career advice, forget attaining flight status. Your PTSD will keep on the ground. And if you don’t believe that I would add delusional disorder NOS to your list of other DSM diagnoses.

  • This is such a vital reminder to awaken us of the need for preventative and integrative approaches across education. The college mental health crisis is real, and we need to take collective action to prevent ongoing despair. My article, Your Mental Health is More Important Than Your Grades discusses some of my research and experience in this area as a lifelong educator and clinician. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kristen-lee-costa/your-mental-health-is-mor_b_8357368.html

    • This is all so disturbing. I am a psychotherapist in private practice and I can’t tell you how upsetting this Reality is on college campuses. When I was training, it was always difficult to get jobs in college counseling centers because there weren’t very many positions. Centers were small and positions were coveted. It doesn’t seem like university’s have a pulse on the increasing demands for mental health treatment amount this population. I don’t know why things are skyrocketing, besides too much pressure from parents and schools or perhaps kids being raised by helicopter parents. But it doesn’t matter the cause! At the very least, students need to be given a few names of therapist off campus but near by! There are plenty of us out there! Universities and Parents need to support gaining access to outside resources if there aren’t enough on campus. Assessing their kids mental health status is one area that parents should be a helicopter! You do not need to be a professional and it should be a topic that is easy and not shameful to discuss.

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