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More MSU students seeking mental health counseling

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle - 7/8/2018

More and more Montana State University students are seeking counseling for anxiety, suicidal thoughts and other mental health problems.

Yet that may actually be a good sign that students are overcoming the stigma of asking for help when they need it, says Betsy Asserson, director of MSU’s counseling and psychological services and a licensed psychologist.

“At MSU in the last three years, we’ve seen a 35 percent increase in clients, while enrollment has increased 8 percent,” Asserson said.

“There are students struggling – and they’re doing a good job of reaching out for help,” she said. “They’re doing exactly what we’ve asked them to do.”

This past year MSU counselors saw more than 1,700 students – slightly more than 10 percent of the 16,700-student enrollment.

That’s about 500 students more than the 1,243 students counseled three years ago.

“It goes up every year,” she said.

MSU’s numbers are increasing somewhat faster than the national trend. USA Today reported that while college enrollments grew 5.6 percent over five years, the number of students seeking mental health services increased an average of 30 to 40 percent. The Center for Collegiate Mental Health reported in 2017 that students’ top concern was anxiety, followed by depression, relationship problems, stress and family.

In a state with one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, MSU has put a lot of effort into suicide prevention, Asserson said.

Out of MSU’s 1,700 students seeking counseling, 34 percent reported having seriously considered suicide. That’s significantly higher than the 7 percent of MSU’s general student population who reported suicidal thoughts.

To better serve growing numbers of students, the counseling office has made several changes, Asserson said. It has made more than 500 crisis appointments available, so that students at risk can get in right away to talk with a counselor and be safe.

It’s training more general people on campus – staff, faculty, resident assistants and others – to recognize students who might be struggling. It offers a one-hour training called QPR, which encourages people to “question, persuade and refer” troubled students to the counseling center.

It also added an eight-hour training called Mental Health First Aid, because many lay people wanted more in-depth training.

“MSU as a community is doing a really great job building a culture of support,” Asserson said.

Another reason counseling numbers may be up is that the counseling center and the student health center have integrated their services under the name University Health Partners.

That means when students see a doctor or nurse for a sprained ankle, they will also be screened for mental health issues like depression. About 15 percent of student medical patients do have depression and are then referred to counselors.

The whole campus has worked to end the stigma surrounding mental health problems, and to send a message that, “Everyone struggles, it’s OK to struggle and it’s OK to talk about it,” Asserson said. “In Montana there still tends to be a mentality of not talking about things.”

When she first started working at the counseling center in 2001, it had eight to 10 counselors. Today its staff has grown to 18 and another position will be added next year. Several counselors have to share offices.

There are also two satellite counseling offices in the Hedges dormitories. Some students like seeing counselors in the dorms, or in the Veterans Center, Asserson said, but some definitely do not want to be seen there.

Most students need only three to five sessions with counselors, Asserson said. Students’ sessions are free and confidential.

For more information about the MSU Counseling & Psychological Services, visit its upstairs office at 211 Swingle Hall, or its website ( or call 994-4531.


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