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On a recent Thursday afternoon at Ohio State University, about 30 students sit in a classroom listening to instructor Kipp Pietrantonio lecture. “Imagine you were just handed your physics test, what would happen?” he asks.

“You sweat,” calls out one student.

“Your heart starts racing,” says a young woman.

“You get jittery,” answers another.

It is a meeting of the twice weekly “Beating Anxiety” workshop” and Dr. Pietrantonio is a clinical psychologist who works at the university’s counseling center. The workshop advises students to tackle anxiety by exercising, getting enough sleep and reframing catastrophic thoughts (if my friend doesn’t text me back right away, she hates me) in more logical ways (maybe she’s studying) among other strategies.

It is one part of Ohio State’s effort to cope with the dramatic increase in the number of its 59,000 students on the Columbus campus seeking help for mental-health issues.

Ohio State has seen a 43% jump in the past five years in the number of students being treated at the university’s counseling center. At the University of Central Florida in Orlando, the increase has been about 12% each year over the past decade. At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, demand for counseling-center services has increased by 36% in the last seven years.

Nationwide, 17% of college students were diagnosed with or treated for anxiety problems during the past year, and 13.9% were diagnosed with or treated for depression, according to a spring 2016 survey of 95,761 students by the American College Health Association. That is up from 11.6% for anxiety and 10.7% for depression in the spring 2011 survey. Counseling centers say they are also seeing more serious illnesses, including an uptick in the number of students coming to college with long psychiatric histories.

It is unclear why the rates of mental-health problems seem to be increasing among college students. Therapists point to everything from the economy and rising cost of tuition to the impact of social media and a so-called helicopter-parenting style that doesn’t allow adolescents to experience failure. Students are “overwhelmed with stress,” says Micky M. Sharma, director of Ohio State’s Student Life Counseling and Consultation Service. “The coping, the resiliency is not where we want it to be. That’s a bad combination.”

College counseling centers are struggling to respond as more students seek help for anxiety, depression as well as typical college adjustment issues like break-ups and stress over grades. Student Ashley Miley (via Skype) joins Lunch Break’s Tanya Rivero discuss how colleges are adding online therapy programs, peer support groups and quick phone sessions. Photo: iStock
Schools have also brought some of the demand on themselves. In the past several years, college counseling centers around the country have become much more aggressive with outreach, dramatically increasing their visibility around campus and driving home a message of warmth and accessibility.

On the same day as the “Beating Anxiety” workshop at Ohio State, the counseling center also put on its third annual “Recess” event. On a grassy lawn, there are tents where students can make balloon animals, blow bubbles and play with therapy dogs and a large colorful parachute. The event is designed to help students relieve stress and to introduce students to counseling center services and staff in a fun way.

Psychiatrist Denise Deschenes, who has a black belt in mixed martial arts, has students write down a goal or a “barrier they want to break” on wooden boards. Then Dr. Deschenes coaches students on how to strike so the wood snaps in half. Senior Illya Shaharudin writes “Pass Midterms” on his board. Freshman Madeline Fixler writes “Self Doubt” on hers. “I got a Snapchat from a friend saying there were puppies and bubbles,” Ms. Fixler says about what drew her to the event.

At Central Florida, the counseling center is active on Twitter and Instagram. And about four years ago the center brought in Bodhi, a registered therapy dog. Periodically, the center invites students to come to the center to pet and play with the fluffy white Havanese. “We have lines waiting to pet the dog,” says Karen Hofmann, the director of the school’s Counseling and Psychological Services. “We’re reaching students that would never have come through our doors.” During one recent Bodhi event, about 70% of the students who attended said it was their first time visiting the counseling center; most said they were now more likely to return.

To handle demand, Ohio State’s counseling center hired 12 additional staff members last year, bringing the total providing clinical services to 65, including trainees. In 2013, it also began having students seeking counseling first undergo a phone-screening session with a therapist. The therapists discern which students need treatment. Other students might just be referred to one of the drop-in workshops that the school launched two years ago. This year there are at least two workshops every day, including “Beating Depression” and “Yoga for Mental Health.” Citing state law, the counseling center doesn’t inform parents when students receive treatment unless a student signs a waiver granting permission.

The counseling center also refers students to its busy “wellness-coaching” program, which helps students deal with typical issues like handling homesickness, academic pressures and navigating relationships. The program has two full-time staffers and a graduate assistant, but much of the coaching is performed by student volunteers who have completed a training program. “Three sessions of wellness coaching may prevent you from needing individual therapy down the road,” says Dr. Sharma.

Central Florida launched a seven-week online therapy program for anxiety two years ago. It added one for depression this year. Students watch videos and complete assignments on their own time and have a 10-to-15-minute videoconference with a therapist once a week, much shorter than the typical 45-to-55-minute in-person counseling appointment. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has increased the number of group therapy offerings in recent years: It now runs 22 groups, including one new for this semester focused on Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a treatment that is often used to help people with suicidal thoughts and self-harm behaviors develop coping skills. Michigan’s counseling center sometimes directs students to the Wolverine Support Network, a student organization that runs peer support groups under the supervision of counseling-center staff. Many schools place limits on the number of individual counseling sessions a student can have each year.

Ashley Miley, a fifth-year music major at Ohio State, has turned to the wellness-coaching program. She has used it for additional support while she was working with an off-campus therapist for her generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. And she relied on coaching when she had to stop therapy after her insurance company ceased paying for her treatment. She said her coach helped her to identify things she could do to make herself feel better when she feels anxious, like exercise or write in her journal, and helped her step back and think more objectively when she gets stressed out. “It helped me change my negative thought processing,” she says.

After the “Beating Anxiety” workshop, Emmanuel Kankam, an 18-year-old freshman, says that when he is overwhelmed he has a tendency to “get quiet” and retreat from his friends. But during the workshop he learned that social isolation can fuel anxiety and depression. Now, he says, “I’m going to talk to people about my problems.”


Read the original article in full on the Wall Street Journal’s website.