By Andrea Petersen
September 21, 2015
Concerned that they aren’t reaching enough young men, college counseling centers are making extra efforts to draw them in.
The centers, which usually offer support groups and one-on-one therapy for struggling students, have faced growing demand for their services in recent years. Still, men make up only 33.9% of clients, according to the latest annual survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors. Men represented 43.8% of the student population at the schools surveyed.
School officials say they need to reach out to these men where they hang out—at their fraternities, clubs and sports teams.
“We cannot just sit inside the counseling center and expect men to come in,” says Micky M. Sharma, the director at Ohio State University’s Office of Student Life Counseling and Consultation Service.
At Ohio State, the counseling-center staff is hosting disc golf games—where players throw a Frisbee at a target. At each target, staffers will ask students questions to spark conversations about men’s mental health. (Example: “What parts of traditional masculinity do you not fit in with?”)
The center also is planning “Broga,” a yoga class for men led by a therapist who is also a certified yoga teacher. The goal: to teach stress reduction techniques to male students.
At the University of Missouri in Columbia last year, the counseling center reached out to the leaders of the school’s fraternities. The center, along with the school’s Office of Greek Life, conducted a course on masculinity, covering alcohol abuse, respect for women and how to talk about emotions. Many schools are also actively recruiting additional male therapists. Men make up just 28.3% of college counseling center professional staff, according to the survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors.
Men are about four times more likely to die by suicide than women, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Men also have higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse and are more likely to self-medicate when they’re feeling distressed.
“When [men] are feeling anxious, getting depressed or having problems with a relationship, instead of thinking, ‘I need to talk to someone about it,’ too often the response is, ‘I’m going to have a couple of beers,’ ” says Mark Thompson, director of counseling and psychological services at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y.
Stigma and gender stereotypes also come into play, counseling-center directors say. “Men are not encouraged to talk about their feelings,” Dr. Thompson says. “There’s this message that you’re a wimp if you use counseling.”
Peer pressure kept Mark Farley away from the counseling center. The 22-year-old was diagnosed with bipolar disorder during his senior year in high school. He got treatment then, and when he began college at Washington and Lee University, he started therapy at the counseling center.
But he says he had trouble relating to the female therapist he saw. And some of the guys on his hall chided him for his visits, telling him he could push through his troubles.
“They were all big partyers and drinkers and that is the way they dealt with their problems,” Mr. Farley says. He stopped therapy after about six weeks. “I thought going to a female therapist, going to counseling was a huge sign of weakness,” he says. But his mental health deteriorated and he attempted suicide. He took a medical leave from school and returned to therapy.
Mr. Farley then transferred to Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., and thrived in what he says is a more laid-back culture. He started a chapter of Active Minds, a student mental health advocacy group with chapters on 403 campuses, and became a peer advocate. He helps other students with issues like time management and homework stress.
Prevention is also important because counseling centers are having a tough time meeting the increased needs of students. While the centers often offer emergency sessions, there can be weekslong waits to initiate regular therapy appointments. And many centers have caps on the number of sessions students can have.
About 14.3% of college students were diagnosed with or treated for anxiety problems during the past year, and 12% were diagnosed with or treated for depression, according to a spring 2014 survey of 79,266 college students by the American College Health Association. That is up from 10.4% for anxiety and 10.2% for depression in the fall 2008 survey. Anxiety and depression are the most common disorders, according to the survey.
The Jed Foundation, a New York-based mental health education and advocacy group focusing on young adults, approached the international office of the Sigma Chi fraternity to develop a website, Sigma Chi Lifeline. The site features information on mental health issues, resources on where to find help and advice on how to talk to struggling friends. The foundation is looking to roll out similar sites with other fraternities and sororities soon.
The Jed Foundation and Active Minds encourage male students to reach out to their guy friends, too.
After Zachariah Tman’s brother died by suicide, the 23-year-old sought out a student leadership role at the Jed Foundation. “Some of [my male friends] are joining in and getting training,” on mental health issues, says Mr. Tman, a senior at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. “A lot of people will actually come to me and say ‘Hey, I’m depressed. I need help.’ ”
Chris McKee, a 25-year-old senior at Pennsylvania State University, participates in public Active Minds forums on campus. He has shared the story of his depression and his difficulty finding support while in the military.
Many campuses have tried to run support and therapy groups for men, but it can be tough to get them to join, counseling-center directors say.
At Ohio State, counselors have had success revamping the therapy group format to be more appealing to male students. Instead of launching right into deep conversations about feelings, the group starts with about 15 minutes of general conversation.
“We talk about whatever is going on in the world. We talk about movies, sports, videogames, political stuff,” says Kipp Pietrantonio, a senior staff psychologist who runs the groups, dubbed Buckeye Brothers. Then comes an hour of traditional group therapy. The session ends with a group game, such as a videogame or cards.
“Guys tend to join together by doing mutual activities that work toward a goal,” Dr. Pietrantonio says. Ohio State’s counseling center has seen a 16% jump in male clients since the 2013-14 school year.
Some colleges say that emphasizing prevention, wellness and resilience is a way to reach men. The University of North Carolina at Charlotte is running 12 workshops this school year around the theme of resilience.
“If you frame something in terms of building strength versus something that is wrong with you, [men] may connect more with that,” says David B. Spano, director of the counseling center.
At Colgate, counseling-center staffers run workshops for athletes about sleep, nutrition and dealing with stress. “Students feel less threatened by us and more willing to come in when they’re experiencing something that is more problem-oriented,” Colgate’s Dr. Thompson says.