Trauma on Campus: College Counseling Centers Respond to Surge, Adapt Services for Students in Need


According to the 2023 annual report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Pennsylvania State University, nearly half of college students attending counseling sessions have experienced trauma, marking a notable increase of almost 10 percentage points since 2012. Mental health professionals suspect changing definitions and reduced stigma contribute to this surge.

Trauma on Campus: College Counseling Centers Respond to Surge, Adapt Services for Students in Need
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Shifting Perspectives on Trauma

The expanding understanding of trauma, beyond catastrophic events, is transforming counseling dynamics. Katie Shade from Florida State University notes trauma can result from unmet childhood needs. Childhood emotional abuse and sexual violence are identified as the two types of trauma increasing most dramatically among college students seeking counseling.

As trauma rates escalate, counseling centers are adapting their approaches. More colleges now provide post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) treatment, with Florida State University (FSU) leading the way. FSU's counseling center offers Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), a treatment gaining popularity for its flexibility and effectiveness in alleviating PTSD symptoms after a few sessions.

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The Alarming Rise in Trauma

The significant increase in trauma cases among college students, from 37.5% in 2012 to 46.8% in 2023, underscores the pressing need for enhanced mental health support on campuses. The shift in perceptions surrounding trauma, acknowledging that it extends beyond singular catastrophic events, prompts colleges to reevaluate their counseling services and strategies.

Katie Shade from Florida State University emphasizes the evolving definition of trauma, incorporating experiences such as unmet childhood needs. This broader understanding allows mental health professionals to identify trauma even when students may not perceive their experiences as such. Childhood emotional abuse and sexual violence emerge as prevalent forms of trauma among college students seeking counseling.

Evolution in Trauma Treatment

The surge in trauma cases has prompted counseling centers to incorporate specialized treatments. FSU's adoption of EMDR, a PTSD treatment involving bilateral stimulation, reflects a broader trend among colleges. Controversies persist regarding EMDR's effectiveness, but its flexible structure aligns with counseling services aiming for shorter-term treatments, usually lasting a single semester.

The demand for EMDR is on the rise, with many students already aware of its benefits before seeking counseling. The treatment's popularity stems from its relatively quick relief of PTSD symptoms and the absence of additional homework. Julia Coelho, an FSU counselor, highlights the positive impact when clients come prepared for the EMDR sessions.

Beyond Counseling Sessions: Trauma-Informed Care

Colleges are adopting trauma-informed care principles to create safer environments for students who have experienced trauma. This approach influences various aspects, from offering choices in treatment plans to reconfiguring counseling center spaces. Western Carolina University prioritizes trauma awareness, providing clients with options such as virtual or in-person appointments and tailoring treatment plans to individual preferences.

Trauma-informed care extends beyond counseling centers, with colleges incorporating it into different facets of campus life. Recognizing the impact of trauma on students' academic success, the concept of trauma-informed pedagogy urges professors to adopt compassionate and understanding approaches.

As college counseling centers adapt to the rising prevalence of trauma, they navigate a complex landscape of changing perceptions and evolving treatment modalities. The emphasis on trauma-informed care empowers students by offering choices and creating supportive environments. In a time where mental health challenges are prevalent, colleges play a crucial role in ensuring students receive the necessary support to navigate their academic journey while healing from past traumas.

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