Students at Sproul Plaza, UC Berkeley. (Henry Zbyszynski/Flickr)
Students at Sproul Plaza, UC Berkeley. In the last six years, the number of students seeking health at counseling centers has increased 37 percent across the UC system. (Henry Zbyszynski/Flickr)

Students throughout the University of California system are having trouble accessing mental health care, and health services directors are raising alarms that increased staffing and funding could be warranted to meet demand.

“The increased need for mental health services on our campuses is outstripping our ability to provide those services,” said Dr. John Stobo, senior vice president for health sciences and services for the University of California. “It is a major problem. It’s not only a problem for UC, this is a national issue.”

In the last six years, the number of students seeking help at university counseling centers has increased 37 percent, according to data presented at UC Regents board meeting on Thursday.

“This is real. Students are having difficulty accessing mental health services on campus,” said Dr. Gina Fleming, medical director for the UC Self-Insured Health Plans. “They’re waiting longer to get an appointment. They’re having fewer appointments within the course of therapy, and more are needing to be referred off campus.”

Wait times for regular appointments have been four weeks, or more in some cases. A typical student who calls in complaining of mild anxiety and procrastination in the first few weeks of the semester could be waiting until finals for therapy to begin in earnest.

“What might have started as a routine procrastination intervention may now be a crisis in full bloom,” said Elizabeth Gong-Guy, executive director of Counseling and Psychological Services at UCLA.

“Increasingly, we find that many of the students who make their way to our counseling centers are seasoned perfectionists who’ve driven themselves to unsustainable positions in which their lives lack any semblance of balance or self-compassion. These are students with eating disorders, crippling obsessive-compulsive disorders, cutting histories, addictions, and illicit stimulant abuse.”

She says more students are seeking help now because of awareness campaigns that helped reduced stigma around mental health issues. Those campaigns were funded through a $6.8 million grant the university received under Proposition 63, a voter-approved ballot measure that raised taxes on the wealthiest Californians to provide funds for the state’s public mental health system.

But that funding to the university ends this year, and health services directors worry they do not have enough money to hire the staff needed to keep up with unabated demand.

Gong-Guy said the UCLA counseling center treated 8,500 students last year – that amounts to 21 percent of the student population and a 23 percent increase over the year before.

System-wide, 25 percent of students who receive services at campus counseling centers are on psychotropic medications.

“This increased utilization is now seriously limiting access to timely treatment that’s needed to support student success,” she said.
The UC Regents asked the health services committee to bring a list of potential solutions to the next board meeting in November.


April Dembosky

April Dembosky is the health reporter for The California Report and KQED News. She covers health policy and public health, and has reported extensively on the economics of health care, the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act in California, mental health and end-of-life issues.

Her work is regularly rebroadcast on NPR and has been recognized with awards from the Society for Professional Journalists (for sports reporting), and the Association of Health Care Journalists (for a story about pediatric hospice). Her hour-long radio documentary about home funerals won the Best New Artist award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2009.

April occasionally moonlights on the arts beat, covering music and dance. Her story about the first symphony orchestra at Burning Man won the award for Best Use of Sound from the Public Radio News Directors Inc.

Before joining KQED in 2013, April covered technology and Silicon Valley for The Financial Times, and freelanced for Marketplace and The New York Times. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Smith College.

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