TAMPA — As Florida's universities stare down a mental health epidemic, the University of South Florida has crafted a plan it hopes will reach all students, from the one in crisis to the one who doesn't know he could use some help.
Over the next two years, USF Tampa aims to invest about $1.5 million in mental health. New wellness coaches will guide students into better habits. More counselors will get students help sooner. Online programs will teach the symptoms to look for.
Altogether, in tackling issues from mild to severe, USF hopes to reach students long before they reach a critical moment.
"Mental health isn't just one category," USF System President Judy Genshaft told trustees last week. "The kind of increase that we're going to be making, it's a whole variety of levels."
Visits to Florida university counseling centers continue to soar, mirroring colleges across the nation. Centers across the state are critically understaffed, leading to staff burnout and wait times up to a month.
Across the state, the number of students in counseling has jumped 55 percent since 2009.
Students made 891 crisis visits to USF's center last year, more than double the year before. More than 50 times, a student was hospitalized under the Baker Act.
While the industry standard is 1 counselor per 1,000 to 1,500 students, USF's ratio is 1 to 1,990, among the highest in a state where only a few schools meet the goal.
"It is a worry of students every day," said Moneer Kheireddine, USF's student trustee. "I talk to students and hear how they have to wait two, three, four weeks to see to somebody to talk to about the issues that they're suffering through."
This year, after universities got a windfall in the budget, state leaders challenged them to develop their own solutions.
USF quickly learned that nearly a quarter of students who seek care don't need a counselor, said Rita DeBate, associate vice president of health and wellness. Some just need help creating better study habits or managing their hectic schedule.
That's why USF is investing in trained "wellness coaches" who will address milder needs while freeing up appointments with counselors. Three full-time coaches have already been hired. Some current staffers, like academic advocates, have also been trained as part-time coaches.
Another major push will be training faculty, staff and students to look for symptoms of mental distress. All new students will take an online training program about mental health, like they do for sexual assault. Certain faculty and staff also will be trained to spot potential issues.
While doing research, USF leaders realized many male students didn't really grasp common signs of mental health distress. They were also reluctant to seek help.
"Part of it is accessibility, part of it is culture, part of it is stigma," DeBate said.
USF wants to hire a specialist to develop programs tailored to students, like those young men, who struggle to access care. For instance, the university could put a mental health specialist in the engineering school.
Since many USF students also work, accessibility was a key concern. An online program will give students modules, such as stress management tips, in between counseling sessions.
And next week, USF will open two satellite centers, where students can meet with counselors and coaches at later hours, in familiar places like the gym. More centers will open soon.
To help with all of this, USF is hiring five new counselors and two "wellness care coordinators," who will manage care for students with the most need. Getting all care providers — like psychiatrists and disability services — on the same page will prevent gaps in treatment.
"We are a community," DeBate said. "We all have a responsibility for the health and wellness of our community."
The university plans to pay for the upgrades through performance-based funding from the state and student health fees, which students pay per credit hour. Some of the investment will also benefit USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee, which will make a few hires of their own.
"(Students) need to see somebody when they need to see somebody. They cannot wait to see a counselor," USF trustee Jordan Zimmerman said. "We will figure out how to get the money. We'll make sure this is implemented as quickly and expeditiously as possible."
Contact Claire McNeill at (727) 893-8321 or [email protected]