HMHI and University of Utah Address Rising Mental Health Concerns Among Students

Today, the University of Utah and Huntsman Mental Health Institute launched the Mental Health First Responders program, a mental health crisis team dedicated to responding to mental health emergencies on campus. The highly trained team is made up of certified mental health clinicians and specialists with expertise in de-escalating situations and assessing students’ individual mental health needs. The program was launched due to the growing number of students living on campus needing mental health crisis support after hours.

“College students are prone to stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness,” said Lauren Weitzman, Ph.D., director of U of U’s Counseling Center. “The strain of living away from home for the first time, forming new friendships, and worrying about completing classwork can feel overwhelming. Supporting our students’ growing mental health needs is an ongoing priority—it is crucial to their learning and success in college and the productivity of our future workforce.”

According to a recent Counseling Center report, University of Utah students experience higher levels of depression, anxiety, and academic distress than their nationwide peers. Last year, there was a significant increase in the number of students seeking counseling services and a 32 percent increase in the number of counseling sessions provided. Students who report mental health struggles are nearly twice as likely to drop out of school than their peers.

In addition to providing after-hours crisis care, the program works to prevent mental health crises by providing long-term therapeutic services, group therapy, and emotional well-being workshops. The program develops personalized referrals and ongoing care based on the students’ individual needs. The goal is to eliminate the number of students going to the emergency room to receive mental health treatment, offer a safe and compassionate way to help those in crisis, and prevent violent and traumatic encounters. This year, the program is available to all students living on campus and will extend to off-campus enrolled students in the future.

The Mental Health First Responders program is a collaborative partnership between Huntsman Mental Health Institute, University of Utah Counseling Center, and University Housing and Residential Education. U of U students living on campus can access the Mental Health First Responders team by calling 385-321-5356. Students can also contact the University of Utah Counseling Center (for enrolled University of Utah students only) at 801-581-6826.For additional free and confidential crisis support, download the SafeUT Crisis Chat and Tip Line app or call the Utah Crisis Line at 801-587-3000.

More Than Half of COVID-19 Healthcare Workers at Risk for Mental Health Problems

More than half of doctors, nurses, and emergency responders involved in COVID-19 care could be at risk for one or more mental health problems, according to a new study led by University of Utah Health scientists. Photo credit: Getty Images

The daily toll of COVID-19, as measured by new cases and the growing number of deaths, overlooks a shadowy set of casualties: the rising risk of mental health problems among health care professionals working on the frontlines of the pandemic.

A new study, led by University of Utah Health scientists, suggests more than half of doctors, nurses, and emergency responders involved in COVID-19 care could be at risk for one or more mental health problems, including acute traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, problematic alcohol use, and insomnia. The researchers found that the risk of these mental health conditions was comparable to rates observed during natural disasters, such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

“What health care workers are experiencing is akin to domestic combat,” says Andrew J. Smith, Ph.D., director of the U of U Health Occupational Trauma Program at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute and the study’s corresponding author. “Although the majority of health care professionals and emergency responders aren’t necessarily going to develop PTSD, they are working under severe duress, day after day, with a lot of unknowns. Some will be susceptible to a host of stress-related mental health consequences. By studying both resilient and pathological trajectories, we can build a scaffold for constructing evidence-based interventions for both individuals and public health systems.”

The study appears in the Journal of Psychiatric Research. In addition to U of U Health scientists, contributors include researchers from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences; University of Colorado, Colorado Springs; Central Arkansas VA Health Care System; Salt Lake City VA Healthcare System; and the National Institute for Human Resilience.

“This pandemic, as horrific as it is, offers us the opportunity to better understand the extraordinary mental stress and strains that health care providers are dealing with right now.”

The researchers surveyed 571 health care workers, including 473 emergency responders (firefighters, police, EMTs) and 98 hospital staff (doctors, nurses), in the Mountain West between April 1 and May 7, 2020. Overall, 56% of the respondents screened positive for at least one mental health disorder. The prevalence for each specific disorder ranged from 15% to 30% of the respondents, with problematic alcohol use, insomnia, and depression topping the list.

“Frontline providers are exhausted, not only from the impact of the pandemic itself, but also in terms of coping day to day,” says Charles C. Benight, Ph.D., co-author of the study and a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. “They’re trying to make sure that their families are safe [and] they’re frustrated over not having the pandemic under control. Those things create the sort of burnout, trauma, and stress that lead to the mental health challenges we’re seeing among these caregivers.”

What health care workers are experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic is akin to domestic combat, according to Andrew J. Smith, Ph.D., director of the U of U Health Occupational Trauma Program. Photo credit: Charlie Ehlert/U of U Health

In particular, the scientists found that health care workers who were exposed to the virus or who were at greater risk of infection because they were immunocompromised had a significantly increased risk of acute traumatic stress, anxiety, and depression. The researchers suggest that identifying these individuals and offering them alternative roles could reduce anxiety, fear, and the sense of helplessness associated with becoming infected.

Alcohol abuse was another area of concern. About 36% of health care workers reported risky alcohol usage. In comparison, estimates suggest that less than 21% of physicians and 23% of emergency responders abuse alcohol in typical circumstances. Caregivers who provided direct patient care or who were in supervisory positions were at greatest risk, according to the researchers. They say offering these workers preventative education and alcohol abuse treatment is vital.

Surprisingly, health care workers in this study felt less anxious as they treated more COVID-19 cases.

“As these health care professionals heard about cases elsewhere before COVID-19 was detected in their communities, their anxiety levels likely rose in anticipation of having to confront the disease,” Smith says. “But when the disease started trickling in where they were, perhaps it grounded them back to their mission and purpose. They saw the need and they were in there fighting and working hard to make a difference with their knowledge and skills, even at risk to themselves.”

Among the study’s limitations are its small sample size. It was also conducted early in the pandemic in a region that wasn’t as affected by the disease as other areas with higher infection and death rates.

Moving forward, the researchers are in the final stages of a similar but larger study conducted in late 2020 that they hope will build on these findings.

“This pandemic, as horrific as it is, offers us the opportunity to better understand the extraordinary mental stress and strains that health care providers are dealing with right now,” Smith says. “With that understanding, perhaps we can develop ways to mitigate these problems and help health care workers and emergency responders better cope with these sorts of challenges in the future.”

In addition to Dr. Smith, Hannah M. Wright, Tiffany M. Love, and Scott A. Langenecker of University of Utah Health contributed to this study. The study, “Pandemic-related mental health risk among front line personnel,” was published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.

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