By Ellen Chandler

The Bulletin

With the start of college begins a period of transition. Students must learn how to prioritize their responsibilities, manage their time and care for themselves on their own. Such changes can be enormously stressful.

“In terms of the college population in particular, we know that transition to adulthood is a vulnerable time for all of us,” said Dr. Alan Teo, an associate professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University. “(There are) new stresses, new social environments, stresses of academics and then at the same time there are a lot of mental health issues that have their onset at that age.”

Colleges and universities nationwide offer counseling and related services, recognizing that psychological well-being is critical to academic success and student safety. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students in the U.S., according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“The college-student population is a vulnerable age, and there are a lot of transitions and stresses that make it a risky time for mental health issues,” Teo said.

Central Oregon colleges offer counseling for students at no additional cost.

Sharon Richards is a licensed clinical social worker with St. Charles Behavioral Health, and is also the personal counselor for Central Oregon Community College. Richards is meant to be a short-term resource. For students who need more than roughly six sessions, Richards said she takes time to listen and learn their needs. “Then I will work with them on making a referral to someone in the community that can see them longer term, whether it’s someone in private practice, someone at Deschutes County Behavioral Health, or at St. Charles Behavioral Health.”

This often includes finding a provider who can accommodate a student’s health insurance, or lack of health insurance.

At COCC, Richards works in what’s known as the CAP (career services, academic advising and personal counseling) Services Center. Richards said the center’s broad mission helps reduce “the stigma that (students) feel is attached to coming in for personal counseling. … When people come into the CAPS center to see me, nobody except for the women that check students in know if the student is there for placement testing, for advising, for personal counseling or for career advisement help.”

Richards, who has contracted with COCC for nearly 12 years, said “people come in with issues of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, stress, managing school with working and families. Those are kind of the biggest topics that I deal with.”

Richards also talks with many students who suffer from loneliness, “especially at COCC (because) it’s such a commuter campus. So those students living in the residence hall have kind of a built-in support system from whoever they meet in the residence hall, but for those who don’t — which is the majority of students — it is hard for them to feel as connected sometimes to the community college campus.”

Personal counseling services offered by Richards at COCC are suited to each patient. “I try to come up — right from the very first session — with treatment-plan goals that they have, what they want to work through and resolve,” she said. This individualized approach allows students to work through issues that perhaps many other students face, but on their own terms and at their own pace.

“There are a lot of things that are being done in terms of trying to provide access to mental health care,” Teo said about college campuses. “I think 10, 20 years ago it wasn’t as common for a college health center to be offering robust mental health services. Nowadays, colleges would really be questioned if they were not offering a lot of counseling services. That means things like talk therapy, as well as access to things like psychiatrists that can help monitor and manage medications for depression, anxiety and other issues.”

Jane Reynolds, director of enrollment services and student success at Oregon State University-Cascades, calls health and wellness “one of our strategic pillars.”

The school does not have a health center because of its small size, Reynolds said. It does, however, have both a health adviser and a personal counselor. The counselor is intended to help students with short-term, mental health-related needs.

“We partner with Deschutes County Mental Health and other providers in the area if a student needs more resources than we are able to offer here at the campus,” Reynolds said.

The most common reasons students visit the personal counselor are to seek help with depression, anxiety and relationship issues, according to Reynolds.

Meanwhile, said Reynolds, incoming freshmen are encouraged to complete a “college adjustment screening” that indicates how they are coping with the transition to college life. With the screening comes an offer to speak with the counselor to address problems.

The school also hosts group counseling sessions.

“We’re working on expanding those so that we can serve more students,” Reynolds said. “A lot of times students prefer to talk to someone one-on-one, but we’re working on adding more groups so we can work with more students at one time.”

OSU-Cascades informs students about mental health services in other ways as well.

“In all of our classrooms we have a sign-up about if you need help, resources are available,” Reynolds said. “So just like we have a fire-safety sign-up in every classroom, we also have a mental health safety sign-up which gives students resources.”

Not only is personal counseling at OSU-Cascades available for students at no additional cost, Reynolds said, “the counselor also acts as a resource for faculty and staff … It’s a great benefit for everybody here.

“We’re actually the beneficiary of a three-year student suicide-prevention grant, and so that actually really helps us develop the programming that we have,” she said. “I think one of the benefits of having a small campus is that folks pay attention to the students we have here, and we certainly hope that they’ll seek out resources if they need them.”

While programs such as those implemented at COCC and OSU-Cascades provide access to mental health care, some say there’s more to be done.

“Why is it OK for us to be afraid to talk about mental illness? Many people have been trained in CPR. Many people know about defibrillators,” Teo said. “How many people know how to help someone that’s having a mental health crisis?”

Barriers such as stigma and reluctance to seek help “need to be overcome in order to improve college students’ treatment of mental health problems,” Teo said.

He emphasized that campuses ought to be focusing on educating their populations. “There is an opportunity for college students to learn how to help their friends, their sisters, their brothers, their classmates, to detect whether the person is struggling from a mental health perspective, and then to actually reach out.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0312,