Mental health resources fail to meet student demand at St. Olaf and beyond

With the recent departure of counselor Nina Mattson ’95, Boe House Counseling Center continues to struggle in meeting the mental health needs of St. Olaf students. Inadequate mental health resources at the College follow a national trend of institutions failing to meet growing student needs.

Mental health services struggle to meet student needs

“When I talk to my colleagues, other directors, whether it’s at Carleton or the cities or Chicago schools, we’re all facing the same problem where we’re under-resourced to meet the demand, much like what’s happening in the community,” said Director of Boe House Steve O’Neill.

Long wait times highlight this disparity between student need and support given. Boe House currently has up to a three week wait for a student to see a counselor and up to a four month wait to see a psychiatrist or nutritionist, according to the St. Olaf website.
Boe House employs three full-time counselors and is currently looking for a fourth to fill Mattson’s position. O’Neill is the only counselor present during the summer. Four interns also work 20 hours a week under supervision.

In recent years, counselors and interns have faced growing demand for their services, with 21 percent of the student population visiting Boe House last year, O’Neill said. The October departure of Mattson, one of only four fully-licensed counselors, highlights the understaffing problem.

“When I talk to my colleagues, other directors, whether it’s at Carleton or the cities or Chicago schools, we’re all facing the same problem where we’re under-resourced to meet the demand, much like what’s happening in the community.”
– Steve O’Neill

Abby Benusa ’20, a former patient of Mattson, said she waited two weeks for her third meeting with Mattson before receiving an unexpected email from O’Neill announcing Mattson’s departure. The email included an apology and resource alternatives two days prior to the appointment. Benusa then rescheduled to meet with an intern counselor three weeks later.

“This is just super not sustainable for me,” Benusa said. “I’m in a time in my life where I just need a lot of support right now.”

O’Neill offered sympathy for students whose mental health care was disrupted by Mattson’s exit.

“For those students, that was really unfortunate for them and it’s a disruption for them especially last minute, but that was the circumstance so we tried to do what we could to best meet their needs,” O’Neill said.

Mattson could not be reached for comment regarding her departure.

Nationwide trend

St. Olaf is not alone in facing strained mental health resources – far from it. Growth in the demand for mental health care has far outstripped staffing increases at numerous institutions. Between 2009-2010 and 2014-2015, the number of students seeking counseling center services grew by an average of about 30 percent, while student enrollment increased by only five percent, according to a 2015 report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) at Penn State University.

A subsequent 2017 analysis of the CCMH data published in the journal “Psychological Services” found that demand grew steadily over the five-year period. Colleges and universities across the country are struggling to meet this recent increase in need, an increase driven by rising prevalence of anxiety and depression among college students, greater awareness of mental health issues and reduced stigma associated with receiving mental health care, among other factors.

Moreover, Northfield as a community lacks enough resources for students who need a higher level of support than Boe House can offer. Allina Health’s Northfield clinic currently has a two to three week wait time to see one of its five psychologists and is not currently taking new patients for either of its two psychiatrists, according to Alexis, a scheduler for Allina Health that could not provide her full name for confidentiality reasons.
Grinnell College, a liberal arts institution in Iowa with an enrollment of around 1,700 students, faces a similar situation to that of St. Olaf.

Licensed Psychologist at Grinnell Student Health and Wellness (SHAW) Charles Bermingham explained that the college’s remote location limits its resources, much like St. Olaf in the Northfield area.

“We’re in a rural part of Iowa, so the resources just aren’t the same as if we were in a more populated town or a more populated city,” Bermingham said.
Bermingham is glad that the stigma behind reaching out for help has decreased, but noted that the volume of students seeking resources outstrips those provided by institutions and community providers.

“I think this is a key topic that’s on the minds of pretty much everyone on campus,” Bermingham said.

Due to the expanding need, innovation and creativity in utilizing existing resources is crucial, Bermingham said. To look towards more innovation, Grinnell offers drop-in appointments and has recently added group therapy as well as telepsychiatry to their list of resources.

Macalester College, another small, liberal arts institution with an enrollment of roughly 2,200 students, is also under-resourced.

“We’re considered to have a good clinician to student ratio, which is about one clinician for every 300 students, but as you can imagine that’s still quite insufficient to the task,” said Liz Schneider-Bateman, Director of Counseling at Macalester’s Laurie Hamre Center for Health & Wellness.

In contrast to St. Olaf and Grinnell, Macalester has the benefit of being located in Saint Paul, a large metropolitan area with a higher number of mental health resources. Despite this geographical advantage, the demand for mental health services among students has continued to increase, Schneider-Bateman said.

Schneider-Bateman sees the challenge of meeting demand as a national problem, primarily due to the U.S. healthcare system which she said does not provide equitable access and is slow to bolster resources to keep up with increasing numbers of individuals seeking care.

As students look for increased support, colleges continue to struggle to find their place as institutions that can help provide mental health services to students.

“We’re in a historically unique or crucial time period in terms of college student mental health, and I don’t think anyone at any school has totally mastered what to do about it,” Schneider-Bateman said. “I think the questions of equity and access are central in that.”