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Florida Universities Address Growing Mental Health Concerns

Victoria Weler

Florida universities don’t always have the resources to help students with mental illnesses. Addressing mental health issues is a serious problem faced by institutions. They are expected to play a central role in identifying symptoms and helping individuals succeed. WFSU spoke to a student who feels her university offered support during a difficult time. 

“I was diagnosed with depression while I was in high school," says Tamiera Vandegrift, a Senior at Florida State University. "But then when I came to college, I got diagnosed with bipolar disorder.”

Vandegrift's experience is not unusual for students in college. 

Jay Reeve, CEO of mental health facility Apalachee Center, says it’s common for symptoms to begin to show during this age. 

“Under conditions of heightened stress or anxiety, their symptoms are going to get worse," says Reeve. "That’s true for folks with bipolar disorder, depression, any kind of mental illness.”

Colleges are well aware of the growing need for mental health services and universities are introducing new programs for students to cope with anxiety and stress. 

Credit Victoria Weler / WFSU

Every semester FSU’s National Alliance on Mental Illness or NAMI chapter puts on an art therapy event with the goal of helping students relax.                            

Having seen the benefits of art therapy herself, painting teacher Debbi Whitney says she has noticed remarkable change among patients with mental illnesses.

“People that walk in with clenched fists and shoulders hunched leave and their hands are open and their shoulders are back," says Whitney. "They’re possibly even like hugging people in the class. And they walk in and they’re so closed and they walk out and you feel this openness.”

After her diagnosis, Vandegrift did not turn to art therapy, but instead sought support through other programs FSU offers.

“I started off seeing a counselor at the FSU counseling center. And my counselor there was really really helpful. She was encouraging me to go see a psychiatrist," Vandegrift says. "And you, oh god psychiatry that has such an awful stigma, an awful like sound to it. So Finally, when I went to go see a psychiatrist then I got the right help I needed. I just got a lot better right after that honestly.”

While counseling services are available everywhere, schools do have limitations. That’s something Vandegrift is familiar with.

“For one thing the counseling center for students that are going there regularly, they are limited to twelve sessions, like per semester or per year, I forget which," Vandegrift added. "But that’s because they have so limited counselors on staff. So if they were able to hire more people that would be really great.”

A recent report from the Florida Board of Governors showed only four universities met the minimum staffing requirement, including Florida Polytechnic University with one counselor per 600 students. The International Association of Counseling Services suggests one professional to every 1,500 students. While FSU and Florida A&M University are both understaffed, with almost 2,000 students per counselor, they don’t fall considerably below minimum staffing. Florida International University has the most students per counselor.

Board member Norman Tripp says the state university system is committed to improving mental health services on campuses.

“In 2017-18 the universities expect to hire a total of fifty six new staff," Tripp says. "A total of 105 additional mental health staff will be hired over the next four years.”

According to the presentation by the board, FSU intends on hiring 23 new counselors over the next four years. FAMU will hire one additional psychologist this school year.

Universities are funding new counselors on their own, after lawmakers denied their request for more state funding. The Board of Governors has been asking for more money to help students with mental illnesses on campus for more than two years.