Various UNH Departments Affected by Shifting Mental Health Conversation

Psychological and Counseling Services (PACS) located in Smith Hall at UNH.

Psychological and Counseling Services (PACS) located in Smith Hall at UNH.

Victoria Fluet, Contributing Writer

Departments across the University of New Hampshire are working hard to bridge the gap between professionals’ and students’ understanding of mental health.

The decline in college mental health is a well-documented problem. One of the most encompassing studies on this issue comes from, a popular school rankings site. It found that 45% of college students surveyed reported increased anxiety due to the pandemic and 35% had increased severity of stress. These personal struggles translate to the classroom as well, with 52% of respondents reporting difficulty completing homework and 33% reporting difficulty keeping their required GPA.

UNH Occupational Therapy Professor Barbara Prudhomme White has noted this disruption. Having originally studied stress in children, White’s most well-known course is “Stressed Out: The Science and Nature of Human Stress.” The course focuses on body science, the evolutionary history of stress, stress’s impact on development and health, relaxation methods and how to manage stress for its benefits and well-being. While the course has always been popular, it had a surge in enrollment during the lockdown semesters. This past fall semester, though, has been different than in years past – enrollment has sustained but the students seem less engaged.

“Attendance has started to drop. I don’t understand; something about the student body, the attendance has dropped a lot,” she says. “It used to be a course that I got validated that it was popular because people showed up. Now about half the students show up on a regular basis. It’s almost a bipolar distribution of really engaged and interested students and students who I don’t know who they are or where they are.”

Another area being affected by shifting mental health is Residential Life. This department includes Assistant Hall Directors, Hall Directors and Resident Assistants. In the office, Director of Residential Life Ruth Abelmann and her team support and help students facing challenges in their day-to-day lives at UNH. These can include roommate issues, relationships, stress and mental health. The University of New Hampshire discontinued triple residence hall rooms during COVID and no longer has built-up triple rooms. Pre-COVID the campus had several hundred students living in built-up triples. Abelmann also noted a higher preference for singles. Beyond housing, organizations are rebuilding with gaps in staff members. She also reported a decrease in student employment, another critical area of student involvement.

“I think our students are showing up big time to stuff in the halls,” says Abelmann. “I think that they are attending events in their building more easily than maybe they did before. Now we have to get them out of their home and into the other things on campus that they can get involved in and really rebuild their confidence as future leaders.”

Danielle Miller, Resident Hall Director of Congreve Hall, noted similar changes. In her ninth academic year working within residential life in higher education, she reports a significant increase in mental health discussions during her time. These discussions come from the students themselves, who Miller said are much more likely to share diagnoses and action plans or to enter college with a therapist from home. However, this openness comes with “a difference in distress tolerance.” Miller stressed the importance of helping students avoid self-diagnosis and make lifestyle changes as a first measure.

“How do we help students find the difference between ‘I feel anxious’ and ‘I have diagnosed anxiety’?” she asked. “There are a lot of words that are thrown out, and I think the conversation that student affairs professionals are having is how to help students understand the nuanced differences between all the words they’re hearing.”

Kathleen Grace-Bishop, interim senior director and director of education and promotion at Health & Wellness, echoed the need for well-rounded, community-based care. Health & Wellness includes physical health services (vaccinations, gender-affirming care, injuries, etc.) and prevention/public health (wellness coaching, nutrition education, addiction counseling, etc.). The department’s mental health and “wellness” side has been more heavily advertised in the past decade. 

The most recent mission is the new “How Are You – Really?” campaign. The online drive focuses on well-being instead of wellness – a more encompassing term. The campaign includes student resources such as the Wellbeing Wheel (a graphic showing eight different facets of health, helping students identify struggle areas) and the Mood Meter (a graph of one hundred emotional descriptors based on an energy and pleasantness scale, allowing students to better express feelings). According to Grace-Bishop, its primary goal is changing the culture around well-being and focusing on creating strong communities – a large and significant change from traditional individual-based approaches.

“We have to focus on the bigger picture,” says Grace-Bishop. “It’s a public health approach.”

But although the discussions around mental health have changed, most students are having positive experiences during their time in Durham. According to the 2022 UNH Residential Life Survey (84% return), 92% of students “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with the phrase “I feel connected and supported at UNH” and 86% of students “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with “I am content with my friend base at UNH.” 

“​There are a lot of narratives about changes to college student behaviors due to the pandemic, and I personally find a lot of these sweeping generalizations overblown,” says Dean of Students Michael Blackman. “The pandemic was highly disruptive and difficult, but the way that people communicate and engage with each other changes over time. Researchers have seen many trends over the past decade or two with high school and college students, including increases in reports of mental health challenges, declines in substance use, and declines in sexual activity.”

Another area experiencing shifts is Psychological and Counseling Services. Commonly shortened to PACS, they offer counseling and emergency services. Total appointments decreased by 12% between 2021 and 2022 (28.11% between 2020 and 2022), but there was a 99% increase in urgent walk-ins (though this is influenced by an increase in in-person classes and dorm residents as well). 

“Reports of feelings of depression and anxiety have plateaued when compared to reports from the previous ten years,” says Director of PACS Elisa Bolton. “In addition, there has been a slight increase in the number of students reporting eating concerns, family distress, and academic distress. Further, the average number of individual treatment sessions increased slightly.”

Interviews with individual students (all chose to be referred to by initials or anonymous) provided an equally mixed response on mental health and mental health services. Student E.Y. went to their hall director, discontent with their current housing, and got help going through the mid-year moving process. Student B.R. spoke about confiding in their professors. An anonymous student called their primary Health & Wellness psychiatrist “amazing.”

Concerns existed too. The same anonymous student spent six months in the ADHD testing process at Health & Wellness and was then told she needed more extensive testing outside the UNH’s system. Health & Wellness gave student E.Y. a prescription and a throat swab without informing them it would have a cost (around $20 for the medicine, $30 for the throat swab). E.Y also wasn’t told a positive or negative result afterward.  Student M.A. has used regularly scheduled and emergency services at PACS and liked the first therapist she was assigned. But when the therapist determined she needed more extensive care, they referred them to a second therapist. M.A. received considerably less compassionate help.

“I have PTSD, and they weren’t necessarily equipped to handle that at the level of training they had,” M.A. says. “Which I don’t blame them for, and they did their best to then send me to a more experienced person who then pretty much gaslit me and told me ‘it wouldn’t happen again.’ And that was just a really frustrating and toxic experience.”

The best term to describe the opinions on mental health at the University of New Hampshire is “split.” Many students feel supported on campus and are stepping away from more extensive mental health resources, as evidenced by the 2022 Residential Survey and the PACS Annual Report. However, there are signs of negative changes, like the increase in urgent PACS walk-ins and Prof. White’s “bipolar distribution.” As the administration continues work to reach and help students struggling, the current emphasis on preventive and community-based mental health resources is helping a large part of the student population thrive.

“Mental health is on a continuum. We all have mental health and it fluctuates,” says Grace-Bishop. “And so, how do we help people understand that depending on where we are on that continuum, what resources are available to us, and how can we take care of ourselves? How can we educate the community on that? And how can we help create a culture where we’re checking in with ourselves about what we’re doing and checking in with each other so we can help each other?”

If you are having thoughts of suicide or are in crisis, call 603-862-2090 to schedule an urgent appointment or to connect with a crisis counselor or visit for information on additional resources.

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