Utah’s college students report depression so bad it was ‘difficult to function’ — but few said they saw a counselor

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Students at Utah Valley University head toward the Sorensen Student Center in this 2016 file photo. UVU has one full-time counselor for every 2,300 students. Administrators would like to hire more, concerned about the number of students experiencing depression or other mental health challenges.

A new effort to examine the mental health challenges experienced by Utah’s college students is just beginning — but already the early results are stark.

An online survey offered to students at all eight public institutions found a startling percentage had intentionally harmed themselves and even more have felt so debilitated by depression it was difficult to function. The report, released Friday by the Utah System of Higher Education, is meant to spur fixes as colleges face criticism from students who say access to help is limited at best.

And without support, there can be devastating consequences.

In the middle of Amelia’s counseling appointment at Utah Valley University, the psychiatrist’s phone rang. She had just asked Amelia about assault and was taking notes on how the student had dealt with anxiety and suicidal thoughts for years.

“Hold on a second,” she said, interrupting. “I’ve got to take this.”

Amelia sat stunned. The freshman had already been bumped from the schedule after waiting weeks to get in and then missed class in order to take this slot. After a few minutes, the psychiatrist hung up and asked Amelia if maybe they could postpone the session to another day.

“After that, I didn’t go back,” said Amelia, who asked to be identified only by first name for privacy in discussing mental health.

That appointment was two years ago. Now 20, Amelia dropped out of UVU “for mental health reasons” last summer. The lack of support from the counseling center — experienced a second time when a close friend was told to wait four months to get in — played a big part in the decision.

“It was a nightmare,” Amelia added. “My GPA tanked. I lost my scholarship. I was threatening to kill myself. And I couldn’t get help.”

Amelia has since been diagnosed and takes medication that has helped in managing the mood problems. That’s been great, but being able to stay in school, too, would’ve been ideal.

According to the survey of college students in Utah, few report going to their university’s counseling center for help. Of the 5,202 that filled out the optional questionnaire, only 14.2% talked to a school therapist.

The report doesn’t say how many tried to get in and weren’t able to — like Amelia’s friend. It does suggests that a slim amount of those who need care actually get it.

“It was hard to look at,” said Megan Brown, director of special projects at USHE, who presented the findings to the board. “But it’s good to know where our students are at, so we know how to move forward.”

Of the respondents, 45.6% reported feeling “so depressed it was difficult to function.” At none of the eight schools did that dip below 40%. At both Salt Lake Community College and Southern Utah University, it went above 50%.

That’s much higher than the rates of depression in the general population. In the United States, about 7.1% of people have reported a depressive episode in the last year, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Of the college students, nearly 10% reported they had "intentionally cut, burned, bruised or otherwise injured themselves” in the past 12 months. And 15% said they had seriously considered suicide.

But the college survey numbers have some limitations. The results aren’t based on a random sample and represent only 3.13% of all of the state’s college students. It’s likely those who have experienced mental health issues responded at higher numbers than those who haven’t. The data also skews 59% female.

Still, it’s the first time all university students in Utah have been collectively asked the same questions about whether they are feeling sad, exhausted or hopeless. Never before has this data been available. And the results were verified by the American College Health Association as statistically significant.

Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez said her school did its own survey on campus before this and “the results were similarly dark.”

She added that UVU has one full-time counselor for every 2,300 students, or about 15 for the population of 35,000 there. She believes it’s not enough.

“It does deserve more discussion,” she said. “It does weigh heavily on my mind.”

While at the Orem school, Amelia sought help from academic advisors and professors after feeling stymied at the counseling center. Tuminez said that’s not how it should work.

Even still, UVU has one of the better counseling to student ratios of the colleges in the state.

The University of Utah has roughly 14.25 counselors for 33,000 students. Students at Utah State University voted to raise student fees to hire more. As soon as two more psychologists and a therapist come on board, they’ll have about 12 counselors for 16,000 students.

“USU has seen an increased demand for mental health services,” said Amanda DeRito, director for crisis communications at the school. “That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing here. We want to meet the demand we know students have.”

At SLCC, there are eight counselors and 29,000 students. Just two years ago, though, there were only 3.25 counselors.

Joy Tlou, the spokesman at the school, said, “We are ramping up. There’s no doubt or question that’s first on our mind.”

Additionally, the college sees wait times of about 10 days to two weeks — which is on the shorter end for the state. At some universities, students have to wait a month or more to see someone.

Isaac Reese, a sophomore at the University of Utah, said he’s had friends not be able to get in at all because the hours are limited and the slots are full. Reese has seen a counselor during finals week to help with the stress — but the school brings more people in for that period.

Otherwise, he said, “access is pretty limited.”

The board of regents for the Utah System of Higher Education first approved an examination into the mental health of college students in 2016. Institutions will evaluate this first round of results in developing a five-year plan to address the issue, including hiring more counselors and improving the quality of services. Those plans will be released in November.

The surveys will also continue every spring to see if the numbers change. And it’s possible they become mandatory for all students to fill out.

Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts is asked to call the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Utah also has crisis lines statewide listed at utahsuicideprevention.org/gethelp and the SafeUT app offers immediate crisis intervention services for youths and a confidential tip program.