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Saturday, May 08, 2021

Counseling increase follows national trend

UF's Counseling Center has noted an increase in students seeking and being referred to its services in the last year, keeping with a national trend, according an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The nearly two-decade-old counseling system, which was implemented after Danny Rolling murdered five students in August of 1990, puts UF "ahead of other universities," said Sherry Benton, director of the Center.

Benton said the university uses a method called "Question, Persuade and Refer," to educate UF faculty, staff and students on how to identify signs of mental distress. Alongside this method, informational folders are given to all faculty and staff when they sign on to work at UF.

The folders contain steps for dealing with distressed or disruptive students and include a list of contacts. The training process is mandatory for UF faculty and staff and free for students.

Faculty are told to look for out-of-the-ordinary behavior, including visible anxiety and anger.

According to the 2008 Healthy Gators Student Survey, 54.3 percent of student participants cited experiencing extreme anxiety, while 31.3 percent experienced debilitating depression in the last 12 months. However, only 7.7 percent of those students were professionally diagnosed with anxiety, while 6.9 percent of those surveyed were professionally diagnosed with depression.

In managing their stress, 4.6 percent of students surveyed reported having become physically aggressive with a person, animal or object to reduce stress in the 30 days prior to taking the survey.

The emphasis on mental health at universities has risen in the wake of school tragedies, such as the 2007 shootings at Virginia Technical Institute in Blacksburg. New programs have been implemented to teach faculty and staff how to better identify students who may have mental issues.

One program, called "At-Risk," was released earlier this year by Kognito Interactive.

The online program allows faculty to have simulated conversations with virtual students and attempt to identify those with indicators of mental distress, according to Ron Goldman, CEO of the company.

When asked about such programs, Benton said she took issue with their cost and quality.

"I get a little nervous about these things," she said. "They can be slightly over-the-top, especially after Virginia Tech."

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Benton said she fears that when people use simulators like these, people may misread certain behaviors and start recommending the wrong people for treatment.

"When you identify people wrongly, you get a lot of liability," she said.

The Virginia Tech shootings also prompted some companies to capitalize on a heightened sense of worry, she said.

The cost, which is about $5,000 to teach 500 faculty and staff members via Kognito Interactive, is expensive, said Benton, who added UF paid of a flat fee of $30 per trainer to certify trainers for its training system.

"There are other avenues to get the same information without the money," she said.

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