Prof. murder, other stressors increase demand for mental health care at UA

Maddie Kingsbury for the Arizona Daily Star

With a large increase in students seeking mental health resources, the University of Arizona’s Center for Counseling and Mental Health Services has stepped up to meet the need.

During a year of virtual learning during the pandemic, many students struggled to adapt. For others, the return to full-time study proved challenging.

There have been several student suicides, and in early October Professor Thomas Meixner was fatally shot on campus; a former student is charged with the murder.

Since the Meixner shooting on Oct. 5, there has been a 23.5 percent increase in students seeking mental health services compared to the week before, Director of Counseling and Psychiatric Services Aaron Barnes said.

For the entire Fall 2022 semester, CAPS saw a 60% increase in students seeking crisis care.

Consulting and Psych Services has increased the number of students it can see as well as the number of staff. CAPS sees roughly 1,500 students a month, but the number varies, said assessment manager Rachel Abraham.

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“In 2019, we had about 40 people on staff, but that number has now increased to 70,” Barnes said.

The recent addition of crisis counselors on campus means students now have immediate access to care, said UA Chancellor Liesl Folks.

University officials work alongside CAPS to ensure the well-being of students and understand that mental health is a huge aspect of academic success, Foulkes said.

“Providing comprehensive support services, including mental health resources, remains a high priority,” she said. “We know that students’ academic success depends not only on academic support, but also on providing access to services that help meet their overall physical and mental well-being needs.”

Emergency style

Barnes is listening to student feedback and working to change the direction of the university’s mental health services.

The old service model, which began with a grading assessment, did not sit well with students and faculty. After the initial triage, the student will be rescheduled and often with a different counselor than the one they started with. That wasn’t providing the best quality of care for students, so Barnes looked for a more beneficial model.

As of 2019, the old model has been replaced with one that is more responsive to student needs and more of an emergency room style, according to Barnes, who said it’s more about letting students have a say in their treatment , to ensure it is the correct fit. Now students can schedule their appointment online and choose the advisor that best suits their needs.

“A core part of our services is making sure that every student who needs counseling gets counseling,” Barnes said.

There are some limitations to continuing to expand the services that CAPS can offer. These include money as well as space.

With a large increase in staff in a short time and limited space in the building, many people share offices. Additional counselors are placed in other cultural centers on campus to maximize space and provide more care.

Get a summary of solutions reports from the Arizona Daily Star at Video by Caitlin Schmidt / Arizona Daily Star.

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“We will find a way” to overcome price barriers

CAPS receives additional funding from various grants, but Barnes said it just isn’t enough.

“My dream is to provide free services, but at the end of the day it costs us,” he said.

Barriers to students seeking help include concerns about insurance coverage, financial stress, and inability to secure an appointment on time. Barnes said CAPS has options for students seeking services who are concerned about cost.

“Cost should never be the reason a student can’t come get care at CAPS because we will find a way,” Barnes said.

Still, he acknowledges that CAPS and its services may not be ideal for all students.

UA psychology major Kimberly Hay looked into therapy through CAPS in November 2021, but ultimately decided it wouldn’t work for her.

“After the initial consultation, I didn’t feel confident that I would be able to get the care I needed,” Hay said, adding that she was also concerned about the cost because her insurance was not accepted by the center. “I would like to see them add more psychiatric services in the future. It would give students the care they need on a whole other level.”

Barnes said he and the rest of the team are on the side of the students and that it’s easier to get things moving when students are advocating for change and resources. CAPS’ new operating model began with a student focus group, he said.

“Student voices influence how we work here, and I want the university to stand out and be a leader when it comes to health care,” Barnes said. “I think we’re going to achieve that because of the students.”

Maddie Kingsbury is a journalism student at the University of Arizona.

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