With mental health issues on the rise, Florida universities look for answers

It’s not unusual for college students to feel the weight of school, work and their personal lives bearing down on their shoulders.

But when the pressure becomes too strong, some students don’t know where to turn.

This has led to a surge in mental health issues among college students, causing the number of Baker Acts on college campuses to soar, according to Rita DeBate, assistant vice president of Wellness at USF.

Florida universities, including USF, are now pushing for the funding to help reverse the trend.

“We’ve seen an increase in students who reported stress, anxiety and depression as the leading academic impediments,” DeBate said in a presentation to the USF Faculty Senate on Feb. 22. “This is important because this is what the students are saying is an impediment to their
academic success.”

According to DeBate, USF specifically has seen an increase in the diagnosis of depression, diagnosis and treatment of panic attacks, suicide ideation and attempts, Baker Acts and other depressive symptoms.

USF had 94 Baker Acts — a call for involuntary examination of a person that is believed to be of harm to oneself or others — since the beginning of the fall semester, averaging roughly three a week.

“We have seen an increase in Baker Acts both in last academic year and this academic year at USF,” DeBate said in a separate interview with The Oracle, citing better information and reporting techniques as possible contributors to this upward shift. “But that trend is the same at most universities.”

USF began tracking Baker Acts in 2016, according to USF spokesman Adam Freeman.

At other universities across the state, the trend is consistent.

UF has seen a 93 percent increase in Baker Acts since 2012, with 62 reported in the 2015-16 school year. UCF has seen a 109 percent increase in that span, with 115 reported in 2016.

At USF, Baker Acts have peaked between the fourth and sixth week of each semester, varying evenly from freshmen to seniors.

With the increasing need for resources to combat the rise in mental health issues, DeBate looks not only to the overwhelmed and understaffed counseling centers, but the campus as a whole.

“The Counseling Center is not solely responsible,” DeBate said. “It takes a community to help solve this issue.”

The student-counselor ratio at USF is around 2,000-to-1, which is nearly 500 more than the target amount, according to Lisa Ferdinand, interim co-director of the Counseling Center at USF.

With the need for counseling services increasing by 48 percent since 2008-09, according to Communications Director for the State University System of the Florida Board of Governors Brittany Davis, the need for more resources is becoming more apparent.

“I think it’s important for everybody to know that this is a national trend,” USF System President Judy Genshaft told the Faculty Senate. “This is something that’s occurring on all of the Florida campuses.”

In an attempt to aid the struggling counseling centers, the Florida Board of Governors submitted a legislative budget request of a recurring $14 million with the support of all 12 presidents of the State University System.

The funding will be broken down with $7 million going toward resources to help treat mental health issues, and the other $7 million funding resources for campus safety.

Genshaft said the money would be “divided up depending on the need per campus in a very fair and formulaic approach.”

“We don’t know if we’re going to get (the funding) yet,” DeBate said. “But because of the mental health issues affecting college students and the rise of Baker Acts, the members of the State University System got together and requested additional (funding) just for that.”

This funding would be the backbone of projects the school hopes to implement such as success and wellness coaching that will offer more resources on stress management, time management and relationship difficulties.

Another is the Cognito program, which would train faculty and students on how to identify the warning signs of mental health issues before it’s too late using the “recognize, relate and refer” process.

Recognize the warning signs, relate and talk to the person and refer them to the appropriate resource.

“I do think we need to take a public health approach,” DeBate said. “Some of the things I think we can do as a university is create a culture of mental health literacy, meaning that all faculty, all staff, all students are aware of mental health issues and can recognize behaviors that may indicate mental health issues. 

“If we can get people doing that, we can be identifying students earlier, which would increase the rate of them getting help.”