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College of Education > News and Publications > 2020: 04-06 news > Research leads to improved mental health services on campuses nationwide

Research leads to improved mental health services on campuses nationwide

Penn State’s College of Education is continually looking at ways to be a change agent in addressing societal challenges to make life better for its students, faculty, staff and alumni.

Penn State’s College of Education is continually looking at ways to be a change agent in addressing societal challenges to make life better for its students, faculty, staff and alumni.

That mental health is consistently identified across those groups as an issue of paramount importance became even more exacerbated more than a decade ago when universities nationwide began to outsource their counseling centers.

Jeffrey Hayes, professor of education (counselor education), at that time joined representatives from nearly five dozen counseling centers to attempt to provide an empirical basis demonstrating the effectiveness of what those centers were doing to help students succeed.

Jeffrey Hayes
The Center for Collegiate Mental Health has seen an increase in the number of students seeking services, and professor of education Jeffrey Hayes believes that’s because there is less stigma around seeking psychological help.

What began as a relatively small group of researchers and mental health professionals collecting data on college students across the country who seek psychological help has blossomed into a practice research network of 626 university counseling centers called the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH), which brings together clinical work, research and technology, all based at Penn State, Hayes said.

“My students and I have conducted a number of studies that examine the relationship between different psychological problems and academic success in terms of GPA, retention and timely graduation,” Hayes said. “It does seem like we’re uniquely positioned as a college of education to address the interface of mental health and learning across the lifespan.”

He said that because the data set is so large, CCMH is able to examine the psychological challenges faced by multiple groups of students, including students of color and LGBTQ students.

“We did a study some years ago wondering if students of color who are not heterosexual faced more stress than white LGBTQ students, or heterosexual students of color,” Hayes said. “It’s very hard to do a study like that at one institution for a number of reasons. But there were thousands of students in this sample from all over the country which allowed us to have confidence in the findings.

“We are able to make some inroads around issues of diversity and equity and inclusion that are not opinion-based or solely conceptual but are empirically based,” he said.

That’s relevant, Hayes said, not only for the scientific process but collectively for community and culture.

“I just think that’s terribly important in today’s society where, as I see it, people in the United States and elsewhere are less and less civil, our citizenship is polarized, people overvalue their opinions,” he said. “Everyone has a blog. Facts are distorted, and even when facts are reported accurately, information doesn’t lead to knowledge, and knowledge doesn’t lead to wisdom.

“We’re seeking to provide an empirical foundation that will help students, that will help educators, that will help our graduates to become successful, and will help people at university counseling centers who are in the position of trying to assist students while they’re in college and beyond.”

CCMH at Penn State is run by an interdisciplinary team consisting of Ben Locke, director of the Penn State Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS); Louis Castonguay, a professor in the Department of Psychology; and Hayes.

“And then, the 600-plus University counseling centers that constitute Center for Collegiate Mental Health contribute an annual modest fee that allows us to have an operating budget, so we are able to fund two project managers and four to six graduate research assistants per year,” Hayes said.

Hayes teaches graduate courses in counseling theory and an undergraduate class that provides an introduction to counseling. His scholarship focuses on college student mental health as well as psychotherapist factors that affect the process and outcome of therapy. He also is a licensed psychologist with a private practice in State College.

“There’s just this natural convergence of my interests in research, teaching and practice that have come together in working with these really amazing colleagues locally and nationally, and more recently internationally,” he said.

“It took us just about five years to establish good psychometric properties for the primary instrument that we use to collect data. I love the challenge of doing good research, but instead of just doing my research in my office with my students to satisfy my intellectual curiosity, CCMH is a different beast. There’s this wonderful synergy between practice and research where it’s very hard to distinguish one from the other since data are collected as a routine part of clinical work and our research questions are driven by the concepts of practitioners,” Hayes said.

Hayes said multi-year data show that the growth in institutional enrollment in the United States has been far exceeded by the number of students seen at university counseling centers, and the number of students seen at university counseling centers is far exceeded by the demand for services.

“We have seen an increase in the number of students who want services, and I think the reasons for that growth pertain to less stigma around seeking psychological help,” he said.

 “We know that an enormous percentage of people who seek help at university counseling centers have been in some form of counseling or psychotherapy previously, nearly 40%. As more students are enrolling in institutions of higher education, we’re simply enrolling more students with psychological problems.”

While students who sought help 20 years ago were suffering primarily from depression, today it’s anxiety, Hayes said. “What contributes to that? A lot of it has to do with technology. People have 434 electronic friends but they aren’t comfortable engaging in intimate conversation and they don’t know how to be by themselves.”

Hayes said what is unique about the work of CCMH is that with very few exceptions, they do not have to worry about external validity because their research consists of a nationally representative sample.

“We ask students, ‘are you OK having your de-identified data contributed to a national pool,’ and 95% of them say yes,” Hayes said. “What we’re doing is much different that way. Every month, we get data uploaded from tens of thousands of college students across the country.”

By Jim Carlson (June 2020)