Little makes Dr. Norma Ngo, the director of Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Houston, sadder than hearing a student say, ‘‘I never even knew you guys existed.”
“Even if I get that senior in their last semester," she said, “I’m thrilled because at least they got some counseling before they left.”
But Ngo and her staff have their hands full. In recent years, the university has experienced an increase in the number of students needing mental health services. In September 2012, the number of students going to the counseling center was about 47 percent higher than the same month in the previous year.
The trend isn’t unique to the University of Houston.
“I think you could ask any counseling center director across the nation,” she said. “And they will tell you there are more students coming in and there are more students coming in with more severe psychological issues.”
Ngo spoke with The Texas Tribune about how her institution was handling the growing need days before the issue of mental health services was recently thrust into the national spotlight with the fatal shootings at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school.
Despite a supportive administration at the UH, Ngo said, the influx of students requiring services and a tight budget have presented a major challenge and required the center’s staff to rethink its strategy.
A similar tale is being told at colleges and universities around the country.
In a 2011 survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, more than 70 percent of members who responded answered affirmatively to the question “Do you believe that the number of students with severe psychological problems on your campus has increased in the past year?”
More than 92 percent responded “Yes” to the question “Is the number of students with significant psychological problems a growing concern in your center or on campus?”
Ngo hypothesizes that there are multiple factors driving the trend.
Perhaps the primary reason, she said, is that society as a whole is experiencing more stress. It is also possible that portrayals of counseling sessions on popular television shows, such as The Sopranos, have helped spread awareness of therapy’s benefits.
She also noted that there are many students dealing with issues that, in the past, may have kept them out of college but that can now be managed. In the survey of center directors, roughly three quarters said a growing number of students coming in for counseling were already taking psychiatric medication.
“Years ago, the medication probably wasn’t there for them to even think about going to college,” Ngo said. “Now they’re here, and our services need to be in place and the whole university needs to support them.”
The counseling center has had to change gears to meet the growing challenge.
“You have to always be creative and innovate,” she said, noting that innovations only go so far with limited personnel. The center currently has nine full-time clinical staff members, and the university has approved the addition for two more in fall 2013. In 2012, the center served more than 1,440 clients. The university's total enrollment is about 40,000 — and growing.
"We have a responsibility to these students, but we also know that we’re human beings, too, and prone to burning out if we keep at this pace without additional help,” she said.
One of the new initiatives at UH that Ngo said has seen positive results is a program that originated out of Cornell University called “Let’s Talk.” Rather than waiting for students to come to the main counseling center, the initiative, which launched at UH in 2011, calls for counselors to hold regular hours in the residence halls and athletic centers.
A student does not have to belong to a particular residence hall to drop by for an impromptu session.
Some higher education institutions with a “Let’s Talk” program are able to have separate staff just for that, but Ngo said that was not currently an option at UH, where counselors must put in time in both the residence halls and the main center.
“We’re reaching out, trying to cross some barriers where students who would not be comfortable coming in for traditional counseling are comfortable dropping by for study tips or quick consultations,” she said.
Other initiatives at the university include efforts to enhance the ability of the faculty and staff to identify students in need and refer them to the proper place for help. The school also offers regular sessions on topics ranging from suicide prevention to discussions about social media.
Heading into the legislative session, aside from providing more resources for higher education, Ngo said lawmakers could help by using their public platform help to break down the stigma of mental health.
Most students who come in for counseling sessions are dealing with common issues, such as difficulty adjusting to campus, stress-induced anxiety, depression or relationship issues, Ngo said.
“Anyone could benefit from having an ear,” she said. “The power of listening is not generally valued, but it doesn’t matter how strong you are — at some point, everybody as human beings needs some kind of help.”