Demand for counseling services increasing at Iowa universities

Demand for mental health services increased this semester as students returned to campus after a year of virtual services.


Hayden Froehlich

The University Counseling Services office is seen in the Old Capital Mall on Monday, February 17, 2020.

Kate Perez , News Reporter

University of Iowa students are waiting for individual appointments this semester as University Counseling Services manages overwhelming need for student mental health support.

UI University Counseling Services Director Barry Schreier said demand for the program has increased compared to 2020, when numbers dropped 6 percent from the previous year.

“Last year, we had to convert all of our services to a virtual platform and many students weren’t on campus, so our numbers dropped off just a little bit,” Schreier said. “This year, our requests for services are really higher than we’ve ever seen them. That’s going on nationally, too.”

In the 2021 National College Health Assessment data, the undergraduate student summary revealed that:

  • 50.1 percent of UI undergraduate students reported using mental health services in their lifetime, with 33.1 percent reporting that they had used them in the last 12 months. Of the students who have reported using services in the last 12 months, 43.1 percent reported receiving on campus services
  • 78.8 percent of UI undergraduate students reported a high or moderate stress level in the last year
  • 52 percent of UI undergraduate students who had received counseling or therapy thought access to mental health services became more difficult during the pandemic

There has also been increased demand at Iowa State University.

“We’ve definitely seen a trend towards students seeking out more mental health support right now,” said Kristen Sievert, ISU interim director of counseling services. “It’s been a big adjustment for students, as well as faculty and staff, to be on campus, being in person more.”

According to ISU’s Mental Health Support Campus Plan:

  • National growth in use of mental health services on campus is six times the growth in enrollment over recent five years which implies demand not linked to enrollment.
  • Eighty percent of students have experienced a negative impact on their mental health with 20 percent reporting that their mental health has significantly worsened after COVID-19
  • College and university staff and faculty report significant stress regarding concerns for returning to campus after COVID-19

ISU Counseling Services has been able to offer both in-person and online appointments and have a stepped care model to tailor services for each student’s need, Sievert said.

The rising need for mental health services was not a new trend, she added, but this year it has skyrocketed.

“Over the past five to 10 years, there’s been an increase in students seeking mental health support and utilization of University Counseling Services,” Sievert said. “Overall, there’s been this trend going on for a while, but I’ve definitely seen it spike or elevate to a new level this semester.”

It is important to both the personal experience and academic success of students to have mental health resources on campus, Sievert said.

“Students can’t be academically successful if they’re not getting support for their mental health,” she said. “Students are struggling. College is a time of adjustment, and these things all come with challenges.”

The high demand for counseling services can lead to longer wait times. Schreier said increased requests have led to a wait for individual ongoing counseling appointments that go into the beginning of November at the UI.

“With any kind of health care service, it’s a finite number of resources and sometimes a bottomless demand,” he said. “So, we’re doing as much as we can to meet those students that want to be seen in person.”

Along with offering individual ongoing counseling, UI University Counseling Services also offers drop-in support groups, synchronous services online, and the drop-in consultation service, Let’s Talk, Hawks!, offered online.

“Students can just drop in and talk to a counselor any time they need to the times that we’re offering it without having to schedule ahead of time,” Schreier said. “We’re trying to do a lot of things to be creative and offer a number of different levels of contact with the Counseling Center.”

The UI Counseling Service also offers a limited number of same-day appointments that students can call and book when the services open at 8 a.m., Schreier said.

RELATED: University of Iowa debuts 24-hour Mental Health Support Line for UI students

UI University Counseling Services is aware that not all students want additional contact and just need to talk for one day, he added.

The University of Northern Iowa also offers a mixture of services, including individual counseling, group counseling, crisis services and hotlines, and its own Let’s Talk program, which is 15-to-20-minute meetings with a trained graduate student.

UI first-year Lindsey Wildman said she called UI Counseling Service to make a long-term appointment and isn’t getting an appointment until the beginning of November.

“I was disappointed when I found out it was booked so deep. As someone that is trying to get mental health help, it’s frustrating,” Wildman said. “I was told I can call in the mornings and make a same day appointment, but considering it’s first come, first serve, they go very quickly.”

Though she was unsuccessful at setting up a long-term session, Wildman did have success in talking on the new 24/7 Mental Health Support Line. As previously reported by The Daily Iowan, the UI partnered with CommUnity Crisis Services to create the support line in response to a recommendation from the Reimagining Campus Safety Action Committee.

“It helped me learn ways to not only help me manage my situation, but help my friends who struggle as well,” Wildman said. “I think it’s a great addition to the university’s mental health services.”

Wildman said she wishes there were more counselors, but believes there are enough resources for UI students to use.

“While I want the number of counselors available to be higher, there are so many other places for students to turn to other than long-term counseling,” Wildman said. “Anything to help benefit mental health is great. It could literally save someone’s life or help them in a time of need.”

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