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Colleges Work To Improve Mental Health Services

Local Colleges Strive To Improve Mental Health Services

UMass Boston.jpg
Signs above public telephones remind students that counseling is available 24-7.
Esteban Bustillos/WGBH News
Colleges Work To Improve Mental Health Services

Inside the Campus Center building at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Robert Pomales pointed to new signs above public telephones reminding students in big bold red letters that counseling is available 24-7.

"It's an ongoing process because, believe me, there are a lot of elevated platforms,” said Pomale, executive director of campus health services.

From one of those platforms, a student jumped to his death early last year.

The number of walk-in emergency visits for mental health services has increased by five percent in the past year, Pomales said.

"There's more depression,” he added. “There's more anxiety. There's more chronic mental illness that our students are dealing with, and that does impact demand."

It's a trend at colleges across the country, and many are expanding their mental health staff.

"We have actually added one psychologist in this past year and we will be adding another next year," Pomales explained.

That would bring the total at UMass Boston to eight full-time psychologists and clinical social workers. Last semester, the university also launched a new mental health marketing campaign.

"Our website is much improved. There's signage all around campus,” Pomales said. “We are getting the word out."

To spread the word, UMass Boston has been working with the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes mental health to prevent suicides on campuses around the country. And UMass Boston isn't alone. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and Boston University have all recently reassessed their mental health systems.

"Colleges are playing a more active role in providing services to prevent suicide," said psychiatrist Victor Schwartz, chief medical officer at the Jed Foundation in New York City. Schwartz said the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's decision last month aligns with what most experts think is reasonable. In a case involving a student suicide at MIT, the court ruled that colleges can be sued if they don't react after learning a student is considering suicide.

"None of us is able to predict anybody's behavior,” Schwartz said. “Direct interventions to prevent suicide are challenging even for clinicians."

At a minimum, he said, schools should train faculty and staff to identify a troubled student. "Because it's a young population, you'll also need to provide a broader array of services to educate them around when they might need care," he added.

It took Merjyl Jurado from Brooklyn a while to find the mental health services she needed at UMass Boston.

"You really do have to look for it," said Jurado, who works two jobs on campus and another retail job overnight.

The physics major was so stressed out last year she almost quit school before seeking help. Clinical social workers on campus helped her cope before referring her to a psychologist off campus. She said a lot of students like her need help.

"Everyone's working, and then everyone's going to class super early in the morning or super later at night,” Jurado said. “I definitely see that a lot on campus."

Now, Jurado is back on track to graduate next semester.

Her situation is more typical of the kind of challenges students face. The actual rate of suicide on campuses is less than one per ten thousand students each year.

Still, at UMass Boston, Robert Pomales said administrators are taking extra precautions in the university's first residence halls that open in September — beginning with closets.

"They're designed in such a way that makes self-injury much more difficult than a traditional rod six feet off the floor,” he said. “They're wire and they're very low to the ground and they don't support a great deal of weight."

Pomales said it's all part of making potential means of suicide less available.

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