- Associated Press - Saturday, December 9, 2017

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Mary Ciochetty stood in the middle of John C. Hodges Library at the University of Tennessee and wrote a note, “You are loved!!!”

She posted it on a billboard filled with other words of encouragement. You can do it. Only one more week. You’re amazing.

The exercise in leaving notes for other students to take was part of an outreach effort by the UT Student Government Association and the Ambassadors for Mental Health Awareness and Suicide Prevention.

End-of-the-semester exams are one of the most stressful times on campus for students who are already under pressure in academics and extracurriculars.

So it makes sense to host a Mental Health Awareness Week, now in its second year, going into exams, said Laurel West, co-director of the health and wellness committee for the Student Government Association.

“The holidays and exams can be stressful, so it’s a great time to remind people to take care of themselves,” she said.

Over the last five years, use of counseling centers on college campuses has grown 30 percent on average while average enrollment has grown by just five percent, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, a research network based at Penn State University.

That trend is also reflected at UT, where Counseling Center Director Paul McAnear said the number of students using the counseling center has increased about 20 percent over the last seven years, ahead of enrollment growth.

“Mental health is a huge thing nationwide,” West said. “There is a huge stigma around it. I’m not sure why that stigma exists, but on college campuses I feel like there’s more of a push to get students resources because there’s just a high amount of stress associated with being a student and having a life on top of it as well. It’s also a time of big transition for a lot of students from student life to the real world.”

McAnear said there are a reasons students might be utilizing mental health services more on campus. One explanation is that millennials “are just more fragile or needy,” he said.

That may be true for some students, but a lot of growth can also be attributed to outreach, like Mental Health Awareness Week, and efforts to destigmatize mental health problems.

“Basically, we’ve said, ‘If you’re in distress, come on in, we want to help you,’ and so students are doing that,” he said. “I think students are just much more accustomed now to seeking help when they need it and willing to ask for help when they need it.”

At Vanderbilt University, Rachel Eskridge, director of the Center for Student Wellbeing, said they’re also seeing an increase in utilization of on-campus counseling services, in part driven by the fact that many young people are entering college with pre-existing mental health conditions.

Since 2010, the UT Student Counseling Center has grown from 10 full-time employees to 13. They re-implemented a suicide prevention coalition this year and are “adding staff as we can,” McAnear said.

Over the summer, UT also expanded the reach of its 974-HELP line, a confidential phone line that students and others can call 24/7 if they’re in immediate need of help.

Both UT and Vanderbilt are also working to build relationships with community resources where students can be referred for specialized care.

“I think there are a ton of resources on campus,” West said. “974-HELP is a huge resource on campus. We have the Counseling Center and the (Center for Health Education and Wellness). I think they’re all very well advertised. We ask a lot of students, ‘Have you seen 974-HELP?’ and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I know what that is.’ There are always some students that don’t, but then that’s an opportunity to teach them.”

This is the second year student government has hosted a Mental Health Awareness Week leading into end of the semester exams, she said. As part of their outreach, the group was handing out different colored bracelets to coincide with different mental health issues.

Students could pick up and wear the bracelets as a way of letting others know they’ve also experienced the same problems. Another activity allowed students to take and leave the notes of encouragement for each other.

Ciochetty, the student who was writing a note and leaving it on the board, said she thinks it’s helpful.

“Even just the smallest saying can actually help someone’s day or what they’re going through,” said Ciochetty, who said she grew up with depression. “Just getting the word out that there is someone there to help you is beneficial.”

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