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NAU Dome

A shot overlooking Northern Arizona University and the Walkup Skydome.

Northern Arizona University students seeking counseling have been placed on waitlists or referred off-campus as Campus Health Services struggles to manage an increased need for mental health support.

New patients can still be seen for crisis appointments or free group sessions; however, since four weeks into the start of the semester, non-crisis students seeking individual counseling appointments have been placed on a waiting list.

The department also had a waitlist during the previous two semesters.

“We are working as quickly as we can to see as many students as possible while also maintaining a high level of quality care,” Julie Ryan, executive director of Campus Health Services, said in an email.

She explained that NAU’s growth in this area reflects national trends: the American College Health Association reports from 2010 to 2019 there has been an over 100% increase in students treated for anxiety and depression.

Within Coconino County, the suicide rate is higher than both the Arizona and United States rates, according to Coconino County Health and Human Services.

At NAU, according to a presentation to the Faculty Senate last week on campus mental health trends and services, Campus Health provided nearly 600 crisis appointments during the last academic year, twice the amount from two years prior. There were also 96 students hospitalized “for mental health reasons.”

Students are still being referred to Campus Health, including in an email sent to the campus community Oct. 29 following the death of a student, as the department works to meet with those on the waitlist or send them to other on-campus and community resources when possible.

During the day, students in crisis are evaluated immediately; after hours, on-call staff can perform risk assessments, consultations and safety planning over the phone. When a student cancels or does not arrive for an appointment, the slot is usually filled by a student in crisis.

The university has hired five new counselors this year, with a sixth on the way, using funds from the health and recreation fee increase approved by students in the spring and implemented this semester. In April, Arizona Board of Regents approved the measure, increasing the mandatory fee by $50, to $550 per academic year.

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Although the campus pharmacy was closed in September to provide more funds for student services, Ryan said it “was not closed specifically to hire more counselors.”

Within NAU, students are being advised to use free group counseling sessions and attend weekly free anxiety workshops and other stress management and resiliency workshops. The university will be launching a peer-based mental health support program during the spring semester.

Ryan said the Educational Psychology Practicum Lab, where students and community members can receive free counseling from graduate students in the department of Educational Psychology, also has a waitlist and will not accept new patients until the spring semester.

Campus Health has also been referring students off-campus to The Guidance Center, Southwest Behavioral Health, Flagstaff Medical Center’s Behavioral Health program, Native Americans for Community Action and private practitioners. Flagstaff Medical Center employees declined to comment Wednesday, but the other providers confirmed they are accepting new patients, though appointments will likely be scheduled a few weeks out. Ryan said Campus Health is providing “bridging appointments” for students who will be seeking counseling services elsewhere in Flagstaff.

Members of the NAU faculty members are also doing what they can to help students with their mental health.

Faculty Senate President Gioia Woods said faculty members are aware that mental health can harm persistence and retention and they trust the efforts being made by Campus Health.

“The Campus Health team is doing everything they can with limited resources … but we really hope there will be a way in the near future to scale up our mental health services so all the students who need treatment can get treatment,” Woods said.

She said several professors have shared they have successfully connected students to resources, even by walking them over to the Health and Learning Center.

“Student anxiety and depression is just getting worse,” Woods said. “It’s a national trend, but at NAU we really need to find some ways to scale up, particularly because we’re wanting to pitch in and help educate more students. But in order to do that, we need to be able to meet their mental health needs.”

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Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253. 

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