Nebraska Colleges Provide Mental Health Resources to Students

Aug. 21, 2019, 6:45 a.m. ·

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln provides counseling services at their health center on campus. (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)

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As college and university students return to school in the next few weeks, they may experience new stressors that can impact their mental health. To help them succeed, college and universities make counseling and other mental health resources available for their students.

This story is part of our ongoing reporting project “Nebraska: State of Mental Health.”

Jon Loetterle is a student counselor at Hastings College. He was there at the very beginning of the counseling program.

“Hastings College back in 2002 had the idea of adding a full-time counseling services department for our students, which at that time kind of put us at the front of the game as far as smaller college campus settings, having that available to students. But saw the need, and so, for the last 20 years, we have been developing that here on campus,” Loetterle said.

Each Nebraska college faces its own challenges depending on the size and particular needs of its student body.

Kalika Jantzen is the director of the Counseling Assistance Program for Students, or CAPS, at Southeast Community College. The community college setting requires counselors to be flexible.

“Oftentimes our students are also working one or two or more part-time jobs or have a family or things like that," Jantzen said. "So the CAPS program tries to be really flexible with their time. We’re not stringent on, ‘you must see us for an hour every week.’”

The program provides up to 15 individual and 10 group counseling sessions free of charge to students. But Jantzen and her coworkers also prepare for a time when students move on from the program.

“We’re a community college so things move very quickly here," Jantzen said. "The students come and the students leave, and so we also want to make those community referrals. So even from the moment they’re meeting with us in those first, second, third appointments, we are talking about other agencies or institutions in the community that we know eventually might be a good fit for them.”

A limit on the number of sessions students can get is fairly common in college and university settings, partly for financial reasons. Southeast Community College’s CAPS program is funded in part by a grant. At Hastings, there have been small funding increases over the years, but Loetterle says funds fall short of the market value for counseling services.

Amanda Murtaugh is a mental health counselor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where counselors aim for eight to 10 individual sessions.

“I’m the newest counselor here and they added because they needed more staff to try to keep that wait time to under a week," Murtaugh said. "They were getting pretty booked out, about a week and a half or even almost two weeks. So when I got hired, that was to take some of that load and make sure that we had additional people available to offer services to students so that they can get in right away.”

Murtaugh and her colleagues are aware of certain times of the year where students will experience extra stress. The start of the school year is one of them.

“Finals week is also a stressful time that we know is coming up," Murtaugh said. "Some of those stressors we can predict. Kind of just the time of the year or school workflow, I would say. There’s proactive things that you can do if you know what works well for you for stress relief or you know what resources are available, you can utilize those proactively before that stressor comes.”

Some stressors are the same for each cohort of college students – but some things do change.

John Goldrich is a counselor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He sees trends in what kind of mental health issues students are confronting.

“I believe our students are incredibly intelligent and resilient, but we are seeing an upswing in a struggle with anxiety," Goldrich said. "Seven years ago you might have had this conversation with me and I might have talked more about the impact that depression is having on our students. Now it’s anxiety that we’re seeing our students struggle with.”

Goldrich also sees a change in attitudes around counseling.

“I think students have become more willing to seek out help," Goldrich said. "I think we’ve done a good job of trying to knock down some of the barriers and stigma associated with seeking mental health. I think as you look at the country in general, maybe we don’t look at mental health as negatively as we have in the past.”

Does that trend hold up with students? Do students feel they can share their experiences with counseling and mental health with their peers?

“Oh a hundred percent, like absolutely,” said Joel Beckwith, a student at UNL who’s sought counseling there.

“I feel like everyone I talk to has seen a counselor at some point," Beckwith said. "Everyone has their own issues in this day and age. I’m pretty open and they’re pretty open with me about their mental health issues. I feel like it’s some of the older generations like our parents I’m less talking about, like, my mental health issues with. When I’m talking with a friend or a student I can be really open about what I’m dealing with.”

Beckwith said he first went to see a counselor when his academic adviser recommended it. He feels like the first encounter didn’t go well, and the counselor misunderstood what he felt was the problem. Later, he went back to see a different counselor.

“It’s allowed me to see more of the habits that I was hurting myself with in college, ‘cause I was just sort of in denial and ignoring it for a long time, ignoring the various problems and just sort of letting it fester and it had a negative impact on my academic experience,” Beckwith said.

Not all students find college counseling as helpful as Beckwith. NET News heard from some students who had negative experiences with college mental health resources.

Despite the challenges, Loetterle says interest in counseling services has grown.

“As our presence on campus increased and students knew of the services that are available, the demand for those services increased, and so we’ve kind of steadily over 20 years increase the availability of services and the staffing, of course, to carry those out,” Loetterle said.

Interest and resources are growing hand in hand for college mental health. And as the school year starts, those resources may come in handy for students experiencing the stress of going back to class.