WILLISTON, N.D. - Reflecting the increased enrollment and higher mental health awareness at Williston State College (WSC), student sessions with WSC's Mental Health Counselor, Leah Hoffman, have doubled since last spring.
Hoffman had 97 sessions with 48 students during the Fall 2015 semester, a jump from spring semester when she only had 48 sessions with 25 students. The documented numbers only include scheduled 50-70 minute sessions with Hoffman and do not account for time where a student might stop in to chat or her time in the classroom.
Mental health services in and around Williston are very limited and concerns with transportation, long wait lists, and insurance coverage are obstacles students at WSC face if they seek counseling off campus.
"Having access to a counselor for college students is important. Many symptoms of mental illness first present at college age," Hoffman explains. "Not only is college a time of major transition, but a student's age in conjunction with a high-stress environment, and the fact that this is the first time several of these students are on their own, can make students vulnerable to developing problems with their mental health."
A full-time mental health counselor at WSC since June 2014, Hoffman has moved from a small, temporary office to a large accommodating mental health counseling room. The new facility is one example of how WSC has recognized mental health as a priority for its students.
"I see a lot of students for a lot of different reasons. Sessions are used to process through whatever the students need. The most common topics including symptoms of anxiety, depression, stress management, grief, family and relationship issues, and substance use," Hoffman describes. "I believe the increase of students is due to a handful of reasons: students are becoming more aware of counseling services; they are talking to each other about counseling; staff and faculty are making more referrals; and our efforts towards reducing the stigma of asking for help are working."
Students at WSC typically present issues that require two to five sessions; for anything additional, Hoffman makes referrals to providers in the community.
The NDUS Mental Health Task Force received funding to help improve mental health services on the college campuses in the NDUS. WSC is using this funding to provide psychiatric medication services to their students through a private provider, Charlotte Ferrell, Board Certified Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner with Clinical Consulting, every Monday for two hours.
"This allows me to make referrals for an assessment, and students can be seen typically within one week, their only out of pocket cost being the cost of their medication," Hoffman states. "This is a huge barrier removed, as wait lists in the community are much longer. We are currently entering into our third semester and, although there isn't a huge volume of students being referred, for those who have been, I truly believe it makes a difference in continuing their education. This service has been invaluable to the students who have been able to use it."
Hoffman sees a pretty even demographic of off-campus (48%) and on-campus (52%) students as well as athletes (46%) and non-athletes (54%), and females hold a majority of her students with 63%. The struggle of breaking through the negative connotation of mental health concerns can be hard for Hoffman.
"Students expect a counselor to say, 'Mental health is important,' 'Counseling is normal,' but I find it holds more weight coming from their peers, coaches, instructors and parents," Hoffman said.
In an attempt for more peer-to-peer help, Hoffman has registered WSC with Active Minds; a national organization for college students whose goal is to raise awareness about the importance of college mental health and reducing stigma. As of January 2016, WSC is the first college in North Dakota to have a chapter. When the chapter begins meeting this Spring, Hoffman hopes to brainstorm activities for WSC with her interested students.