UT students encounter long wait to see counselors

Robert Grant # State

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT)-- College can take a toll on students' mental health. Research done by College Student Mental Health Statistics showed one in four students have a diagnosable illness. Meanwhile 40 percent of kids did not seek help.

Olivia Greeley, a University of Tennessee senior, was one of those students who felt the weight of college pressure. On top of that, she struggled with slipping mental health.

"I was in a time where I really needed to talk to someone because I knew I couldn't handle it myself and I was scared to try and handle it myself,"
she said.

The Johnson City native was blindsided by a break in trust. She said her closest friend leaked her tightly held secrets.

"I was in a really bad place,"
she said.

What was a bad situation became even worse when she was faced with a long wait time to see a college counselor.

"I was told I had to wait five weeks,"
Greeley said.
"I asked, 'Is there nothing sooner?'"

She claimed she could not get in sooner. But the backlog is not an isolated problem on Tennessee's campus. The trend was seen across the country.

Professionals said a push to stop the stigma behind mental health and improve outreach left an increase in demand.

"That's kind of what happens. You get more and more demand and the slots get full,"
Paul McAnear, the director of UT's Student Counseling Center, said.

He added a few years ago, counselors visited with about 1,600 students. He expected close to 3,000 this year. Along with the demand, McAnear said the school had hired an extra staff member each year.

"At the same time, we're humbly aware that we could add five counselors here next year and it would still be challenging,"
he added.

Students are allowed to walk into the Student Counseling Center for an initial evaluation. At that time, McAnear said counselors will do a safety check. After that, they schedule a follow-up appointment ideally no more than three weeks out. Students pay a services fee which allows for 12 visits in a year.

"It almost makes it harder to get better, to think you have a deadline,"
Greeley said.

Counselors will make exceptions on a case-by-case basis. But after that cap is reached, students are referred to an off-campus source and are left to pay out-of-pocket.

McAnear said most students get what they need before that point. The school is working to improve efficiency and claims to continue hiring more staff.

UT also contracted the JED Foundation to conduct research on student emotional well-being. Topics would focus primarily on suicide prevention and substance abuse.

The university said they will examine the data to help develop a four-year plan to improve their efforts on fostering a healthy campus environment.

The university also has a '974 helpline' for students and staff to anonymously call in and report any concerns about another student.

Greeley is now getting the help she needs off-campus, but wants to spread awareness of the problem in hopes it doesn't happen to another student.

"People are starting to seek help, which is an amazing thing, but you need to have the resources for that,"
she said.
"I don't want anyone else to go through that."