Program helps students cope with college life

Advocates make referrals for appropriate services

Drawing on its 30 years of experience in employee assistance programs, CIGNA Behavioral Health has begun a new Student Assistance Program to help students adjust to life on a college campus and cope with common behavioral health concerns such as stress, depression, suicide, and alcohol and substance abuse.

"College is a stressful time for students. It’s the first time they’re away from home without their support system. They have to learn in a whole new way and are responsible for more things than ever before. We saw a need for services," says Jodi Aaronson Prohofsky, PhD, LMFT, senior vice president of clinical operations.

CIGNA Behavioral Health, based in Eden Prarie, MN, contracts with colleges to provide

the student assistance program and is the only national full-service vendor of student assistance programs in the United States.

Although most college and universities offer counseling programs through their student health centers, they aren’t equipped to deal with all of the emotional issues that face today’s college students, she adds.

"For the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of stories in the press about suicide among college students. As an organization, we are clearly focused on preventative health and well-being. We researched the industry to see what was offered and found that no one was offering these particular services," Prohofsky says.

The first program went into effect April 1 and covers 5,000 students at New Mexico Highlands University and Luna Community College, both in Las Vegas, NM.

"Students face a myriad of emotional challenges that can impact academic performances. Bringing CIGNA Behavioral Health’s program on campus ensures that we can provide the highest level of service to help our students manage their emotional health," says Judy Cordova, dean of students at New Mexico Highlands University.

All students enrolled in a participating university receive a toll-free number that they can call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to discuss any kind of issue.

The program is staffed by behavioral health managers called personal advocates who are bachelors- or masters-level paraprofessionals with degrees in psychology or social services and licensed behavioral care professionals who are available to take crisis calls.

"Students with behavioral health or personal problems no longer have to go through their student health center, which may have a long wait for service and is likely to be closed at 2 a.m. when a problem arises," Prohofsky says.

In the first days of the program, the personal advocates fielded questions that ranged from depression and anxiety to eating disorders and relationship issues.

The personal advocates are trained to help students connect with the appropriate resources to help with their individual needs. CIGNA Behavioral Health has a nationwide network of 45,000 providers offering clinical and nonclinical services.

The program includes a staff of licensed behavioral health clinicians who can handle crisis calls as well as referrals for face-to-face counseling with local clinicians.

Nonclinical resources include tutors, legal assistance, financial consultants, help for crime victims, AIDS support, gay/lesbian programs, support for single parents, child abuse information, and information on women’s issues.

"We are drawing on the resources we have developed for our employee assistance programs," Prohofsky says.

For instance, a student who gets a speeding ticket and doesn’t want to tell his or her parents may ask to be connected to an attorney near the college to help them decide what to do.

Most of the personal advocates have experience in social work or psychology.

They go through an eight-week training program that includes everything from how to provide excellent customer service to what kind of service callers would expect when they call a toll-free number. They learn what questions to ask the caller and how to identify someone who is in crisis.

The personal advocates don’t provide counseling but identify what the issues are and refer callers to the appropriate services.

"When a personal advocate takes a call, the goal is to get an understanding of the caller’s individual issues and to make the most appropriate referral," Prohofsky says.

If the student needs to talk to someone on the telephone immediately, the personal advocate can refer him or her to a clinician who is available. If the personal advocate determines that the situation is a crisis, the call is immediately transferred to a clinician.

The personal advocates can refer students to a library of educational material that includes tip sheets on developing good study skills and other advice.

Every student who is seen by a student assistance counselor is contacted two weeks after the last session for feedback to determine if the services are satisfactory and address any additional concerns or situations.

Threats to mental well-being of college students

  • Depression: At colleges nationwide, large percentages of college students are feeling overwhelmed, sad, hopeless, and so depressed that they are unable to function. According to a recent national college health survey, 10% of college students have been diagnosed with depression, including 13% of college women.
  • Anxiety disorders: In 2000, almost 7% of college students reported experiencing anxiety disorders within the previous year. Women are five times as likely to have anxiety disorders.
  • Eating disorders: The highest rates in eating disorders occur in college women. Overall, as many as 10 million women and 1 million men suffer from eating disorders.
  • Suicide: According to a study in 1998, suicide was the third leading cause of death for those 15-24, and the second leading killer in the college population.
  • Frequent mental distress: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7.8% of men and 12.3% of women 18-24 report frequent mental distress — a key indicator for depression and other mental disorders.
  • Overwhelming stress: According to a recent University of California – Los Angeles survey, more than 30% of college freshman report feeling overwhelmed a great deal of the time. About 38% of college women report feeling frequently overwhelmed.

Source: CIGNA Behavioral Health and the National Mental Health Association (nmha.org).