Over the past semester, a number of police reports from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Police Department have shown students grappling with a mental health crisis, with some having suicidal thoughts or attempting suicide.

Mental health is a serious ongoing issue, both nationally and globally. According to the CDC, over one in five US adults live with a mental illness, and over one in five youth aged 13-18 have had or are currently facing a seriously debilitating mental illness.

The wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has created a sense of “intolerable uncertainty,” according to Dr. Brian Frederick, the director of counseling and testing at UL Lafayette. That uncertainty has breached people’s personal, social, professional and academic lives. But Frederick says there’s been an upside to this.

“The silver lining in all of that is a greater awareness of one’s mental health. We’re seeing more people asking for help. We’re seeing more people receiving help,” Frederick said.

Frederick said that, compared to pre-pandemic, the Counseling and Testing Center at UL Lafayette has seen a 14% increase in the number of clients attending counseling, as well as a 56% decrease in the number of students requiring emergency hospitalization.

“All of this is telling me that there’s an increased awareness in one’s mental health, and that people are finding the courage to ask for help and are receiving help,” Frederick said.

An unlimited number of counseling sessions is available free of charge to all UL students, faculty and staff members.

The Counseling and Testing Center has been well-supported by the administration, with six full-time mental health providers and between 8-10 master’s level interns each semester.

Frederick shared that over the past year, over 1000 people attended counseling, and that eight out of 10 students that attended at least one counseling session went on to either graduate or register for classes the next semester.

“They’ve stayed in school the following semester. To me, that’s very significant considering the personal obstacles that a lot of our clientele are facing,” Frederick said.

Dr. Kristy Fusilier, the assistant director of counseling and testing, said that anxiety and stress are the top reasons for people coming into counseling. She added that 33% of clients come in having already been diagnosed, and that the pressures placed on college students can exacerbate issues they already have.

“When you pair in some of these academic stressors, it can increase those symptoms,” Fusilier said. “A lot of students also face pressures at home, maybe they’re having to take care of siblings, take care of parents, maybe they’re not getting a lot of financial support so they’re having to work 40 hours a week, plus their course load. It can just culminate with everything that they’re already dealing with if they’re previously diagnosed.”

Social media has also had a hand in worsening mental health and creating issues regarding self-image.

“Having it at your fingertips shows you all a lot of unrealistic expectations. That you’re supposed to be in a certain cookie-cutter mold, and if you don’t fit that, then there’s something wrong with you,” Fusilier said.

Frederick shared that huge advances have been made in psychiatric medicine, as well as in talk therapy strategies.

“We’re able to identify which areas of their life that they’re struggling with, whether it’s their family life, their social life, their academic life. We’re able to help identify their strengths and their weaknesses, use their strengths to overcome some of the obstacles,” Frederick said.

The Counseling and Testing Center has also been making advances of its own, such as counselors reaching out to students who’ve been referred through the Students of Concern program.

“With this program, the counselors are actually taking the initiative and reaching out to the individual to tell them about our services and to invite them into counseling, that has been very successful and also improving the number of individuals that are attending counseling,” Frederick said.

The Counseling and Testing Center also offers suicide prevention training, both in-person and through video conferencing, and in the spring will be offering pre-recorded and on-demand training to UL Lafayette students, faculty, staff members and parents.

They’ve also been working with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to develop a peer support program that should be ready in the spring semester. 

Groups would be made up of people of a similar age group and would discuss issues they might be struggling with, such as academic stress or depression.

These peer support groups will be led by a peer specialist, who’ve had lived experiences with mental illness and can offer support and advice to the group.

“Just the benefits of having someone who has walked in your shoes and can share their experience, strength and hope, and has been there and has done that, and they can tell another, their peer, ‘This is what I went through, this is what worked for me, this is what didn’t work for me.’ But I think underlying that is hey, I’m not alone. There’s somebody else,” Frederick said.

Going forward, one of the key ways to tackle the mental health crisis is the de-stigmatization of mental health and encouraging help-seeking behaviors, as well as being aware of potential warning signs of mental health issues in friends and loved ones.

Mental health issues can affect anyone, but Frederick stressed that depression is a very treatable condition.

“You don’t have to suffer in silence. There’s help. You just need to have the courage to take that first step and to ask for help and to receive help,” Frederick said.

The Counseling and Testing Center is located in the Saucier Wellness Center, OK Allen Hall, and is open between 7:30 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Monday-Thursday, and between 7:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. on Friday for students to stop by and schedule a counseling appointment.