Since 2001, 2.7 million troops have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly one in 10 returns with post-traumatic stress disorder. Within a year of returning home, three in 10 will be diagnosed.
We’re proud to share some of the great things our alma mater is doing to assist our men and women in uniform, including:
UCF RESTORES Clinical Research Center
As part of the UCF Department of Psychology in the College of Sciences, UCF RESTORES is a clinical research center dedicated to the study of all facets of anxiety, trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, including etiology, psychopathology, treatment, resilience and prevention.
The following video highlights the remarkable success that the UCF RESTORES clinic is finding in helping veterans master traumatic memories:
The center ensures student veterans access to all available campus resources, provides study space and special tutoring, helps faculty and staff understand these students’ unique needs, and provides them the tools needed to stay on track and complete their degrees.
The VARC has been designated as a center for excellence for veteran-student success. And, since 2011, UCF has been named a “Military-Friendly School” by G.I. Jobs.
A Month of Honor and Remembrance
UCF is honoring veterans all month long, with a commemorative ceremony and other activities, which, so far, have included an open house and student-veteran appreciation lunch at the Veterans Academic Resource Center, a free screening of the documentary “Debt of Honor: Disabled Veterans in American History,” a flag display on Memory Mall, and a Veterans Day parade at Universal Studios.
Still to come:
Saturday, Nov. 14 | Several UCF organizations and departments will participate in the City of Orlando Veterans Day Parade, honoring the men and women of the armed forces. This year’s parade will also commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.
Monday, Nov. 16 | Student-veterans are invited to attend Light Up UCF’s Military Appreciation Night. Contact Joshua Johnson at 407.823.5874 for more info.
Thursday, Nov. 19 | In gratitude of active military, reserves, veterans and first responders, they can register for complimentary tickets to the UCF vs. East Carolina football game for Military Appreciation Knight, and will also be extended to the UCF vs. USF game on Thursday, Nov. 26. GET TICKETS (Click on the “TICKETS” tab on the top banner, search “UCF Football” and select your seats. GOVX members will receive a complimentary ticket. Up to four additional tickets will be available at $20.)
With an intensive new approach to exposure therapy, UCF clinicians and graduate students are finding remarkable success in helping veterans master traumatic memories. But the Department of Defense grant that funds their work runs out next year.
Just reading the labels on the rows of little jars seems like enough to trigger a traumatic memory: CORDITE, DIESEL FUEL, BURNING TRASH, BODY ODOR, GUNPOWDER, BURNT HAIR. And if it doesn’t, the carefully concocted scents inside — delivered to patients’ nostrils with precision fans while they “see” corresponding visuals inside high-tech headsets — almost certainly will.
But that’s exactly the idea behind this kind of exposure therapy — to deliberately return patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, via virtual reality, to the scenes and situations that haunt them. “If we do this repeatedly,” says UCF psychology professor Deborah Beidel, “say, ‘okay, take me through what happened to you,’ while the memory may remain, it loses its ability to elicit anxiety and allows them to once again function in the world.”
It’s by no means an easy process though. With virtual reality headsets, audio equipment, scent machines and even a pad underfoot to simulate the vibration of explosions, Beidel and her colleagues and graduate students can recreate with almost disturbing fidelity the exact traumatic events that patients remember. On occasion, the responses have been intense enough that patients have vomited during therapy.
Still, it works, as it did for Marine First Sergeant Doug Hester, who came to UCF RESTORES — an on-campus clinic for active duty personnel and veterans who developed PTSD as a result of serving in the Iraq and/or Afghanistan conflicts — struggling with anxiety and hypervigilance and growing steadily more isolated from his former life and the people in it.
After a 17-week program of virtual reality exposure therapy to address anxiety, combined with carefully designed group therapy to address anger, social isolation and depression, Hester says he’s back to his old self. “We got in there and addressed the issue,” he says, which was exactly what he wanted to do, instead of more traditional talk therapy or medication.
In fact, that combination of intense exposure therapy with targeted group therapy works for a remarkable number of patients. At the end of the treatment — either the 17-week program Hester did or an intensive, three-week program — more than 60 percent of patients no longer meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD.
The problem, to put it very simply, is there are too many Hesters and not enough Beidels. The $5 million Department of Defense grant that allowed Beidel to establish the clinic in 2011 only covers treatment of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, not those from other conflicts. Nor does it allow Beidel and her colleagues to treat other groups, like first responders, who actually suffer from PTSD at a higher rate than the military. “We turn away a lot of people,” she says.
Even among the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans that UCF RESTORES is funded to treat, the clinic is hardly able to scratch the surface of the overwhelming need for care. Patients — who are referred from all over the country by Veterans Administration personnel, private clinicians and on-base psychologists — go through treatment in groups of four to six at a time, which doesn’t do much to defray the long waits — sometimes over a year — for PTSD treatment from the VA.
The only realistic answer, of course, lies in exponentially increasing the number of clinicians trained in this new kind of treatment. “A lot of clinicians are afraid to do exposure therapy with people with combat-related PTSD,” says Beidel. “They don’t know how to do it, and they believe the myths. We have data to show that even in this intensive program, people don’t increase alcohol use, don’t become more suicidal. None of those things that people think should happen, happen.”
So, alongside treating as many patients as possible, another of Beidel’s primary objectives is training as many clinicians as possible. The way she sees it, her graduate students will leave campus and establish their own practices or clinics, or join the faculty at other universities, where they’ll not only treat more patients but also train more clinicians, who in turn will train more, creating a ripple effect that has the potential to make a real difference.
Additionally, Beidel hopes to bring postdoctoral fellows, medical students, practicing clinicians and others to the clinic to train them in the same interventions. The demand is already there, she says, just not the funding, since current grants don’t cover training.
That crucial Department of Defense grant runs out soon, and at the point, absent some additional funding source, Beidel and her colleagues will essentially shut the doors. They’ll continue their research, of course, and continue training graduate students, but there won’t be any more money to pay for the costs of treatment — equipment, supplies, and the licensed clinicians required to keep the doors open. “You can’t run a project with people with this level of emotional distress with graduate students,” Beidel says, “because they can’t be available for emergencies, they can’t take on the number of participants that are in need of treatment, they can’t keep a clinic open 40 hours a week, which is what we need.”
By Karen Guin
Communications Director, College of Health and Public Affairs
The University of Central Florida Communication Disorders Clinic will hold an open house from 1-3 p.m. Friday, Oct. 9 to showcase its new state-of-the-art facility in Central Florida Research Park adjacent to the university.
The facility houses the largest clinical education program for speech-language pathology students in the United States, so residents in Central Florida will be able to take advantage of a breadth of services for children and adults with speech, language and hearing issues. As part of the open house celebration, the clinic will offer free hearing screenings.
“One out of eight people have difficulty communicating because of speech, language or hearing impairments,” said Richard Zraick, chair of the UCF Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, which oversees the clinic. “The open house will give the public an opportunity to tour our facilities, meet our clinical educators and students, and learn more about how we can help them.”
Visitors can go on a tour to visit several centers and specialty programs housed at the clinic, including an expanded Aphasia House.
Aphasia House offers outpatient therapy in a home-like setting for individuals with aphasia. The disorder, an impairment of comprehending words, results from stroke or other trauma to parts of the brain that control language and speech. The new facility is the largest of its kind in the nation and the only to offer year-round intensive, comprehensive therapy sessions in a university setting.
Visitors can see the Florida Alliance for Assistive Services and Technology demonstration center at the clinic. Experts at the center demonstrate the latest assistive technology devices available for clients who use aids to supplement or replace their speech. They also evaluate client needs, provide treatment and help people acquire devices.
Guests can also visit the UCF Listening Center. The colorful, child-friendly facility assists families with children up to 3 years old with hearing loss. Experts there offer the latest in listening and spoken-language services, as well as connect families with a network of other services.
The new location includes an audiology suite, where a licensed audiologist will offer the free hearing screenings. The clinic’s audiologist evaluates and treats children and adults experiencing hearing loss, ringing in the ears and increased sensitivity to loud sounds. She also fits and dispenses hearing aids and custom ear plugs for hearing protection. Cochlear implant services will be added this fall.
No reservations are needed. The clinic is at 3280 Progress Drive, Suites 300 and 500. Desserts and drinks will be served.
Amanda Carbonneau’s new student ID lanyard hung from her neck, a proud symbol of her freshman status.
Two hours before her first class Monday, she mentioned the hip-hop class at the gym she wants to try. She had already discovered how delicious school food can be and stumbled upon Knightro the UCF mascot, good material for a Facebook post.
This is what life is like moving on campus for Carbonneau, a pioneer at the University of Central Florida. She is one of six students enrolled in a test program aimed at making higher education more accessible for those with intellectual disabilities.
The program is debuting at a time when there has been a greater focus on helping disabled students get the necessary education to find good jobs.
Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who has a son with Down syndrome, has pushed for the state to devote more resources to the issue. Although Gov. Rick Scott vetoed money for a statewide center for students with disabilities, UCF moved forward with its previously planned small test.
“We need to get the word out. This is an option,” said Debra Hart at the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
“Students [with disabilities] can — and do — go to college,” added Hart, who advised UCF with the pilot.
Carbonneau now lives in a dorm room with a view overlooking a lake and the marching-band practice fields. The decorating process went fast: the turquoise comforter in place, her quilt made from old soccer T-shirts up and the heart lights strung up over her bed.
“It feels like home,” said Carbonneau, 21.
Growing up, Carbonneau took therapy to learn how to hold a pencil and improve her speech. She reads on a fourth-grade level.
“Amanda has really struggled with school her whole life,” said her mother, Janet, a UCF alum who met her husband at college in the 1980s. “She is one of the kids who in the public-school system falls through the cracks. She’s not severely handicapped. She’s not autistic. She doesn’t really have a diagnosis. She’s not Down syndrome. … She just has some learning issues.”
At one school, her teacher said Carbonneau would never graduate from high school. Her mother switched schools.
Janet and Guy Carbonneau wanted a normal life for their daughter, who liked roller coasters, played soccer, baby-sat, earned her drivers license and graduated in 2013 from what is now known as Willow Schools.
“Nothing makes her fearful. She just says, ‘I’m going to try,'” said her former Principal Carla Brandt. “You can just tell she wants to go into this world. Once she finds her place, her niche, she will just thrive.”
Her family, which lives 20 minutes away in Winter Springs, moved her in last week, battling a rainstorm. They didn’t want to miss a preseason NFL game, which only increased the urgency to get Carbonneau’s TV working.
“We love Amanda,” wrote her older sister, Jordan, on a white board on move-in day.
This semester, Carbonneau will take two classes, one on college skills and another on childhood education. She will get paired with other UCF students to help her adjust to school and campus social life.
Carbonneau and the other five students are not degree-seeking, so they will not get letter grades for their classes. They didn’t need high test scores or grades to gain admittance either.
The university is still working on the details, such as whether they will receive certificates or a special degree, said Adam Meyer, director of UCF’s Student Accessibility Services.
“We know at the state level we need to have those conversations,” Meyer said.
What makes UCF’s program unique is the buy-in, from top to bottom, Hart said.
For instance, Provost Dale Whittaker has touted the program to UCF leaders, and professors who support Carbonneau in their classes will adjust assignments so they are appropriate for her.
It also stands out because the majority of university programs don’t allow disabled students to live on campus, Hart said, amid concerns the students are exposed to sex and alcohol and other typical college issues.
Hart said she believes the UCF program is “very robust and rich for the students.”
“They want an authentic college experience, meaning it’s the real deal,” she said.
In a cheerful tone, Carbonneau listed off her plans for school: maybe join a club, meet new friends, go to the football games land a job at a university day care because she likes children.
Who knows? Maybe she will meet a nice boyfriend in college.
“I’m excited for that, too,” she said.
This story appeared in an Aug. 24, 2015, edition of the Orlando Sentinel online. It has been slightly edited in accordance with alumni association style guidelines. See original article.
By Sandra Carr
UCF College of Education and Human Performance
Earning his doctorate in education with a concentration in organizational sociology from the UCF College of Education and Human Performance is one of Brevard County Sheriff’s Office Special Victims Unit Agent Jessie Holton’s most rewarding accomplishments.
Before enrolling in college, Holton conducted research within his department and found that law enforcement agents with college degrees are on the rise.
“I noticed a college degree was becoming more accepted when I got into law enforcement, so I decided to attend college,” Holton explains. “The next generation of policing is becoming a lot smarter with a higher education. Getting my education from UCF refined everything and made me a much better person and police officer.”
He also received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice from UCF and has been assisting child-abuse victims with his 4-year-old pooch, Primus, a Puggle (pug-beagle mix), in his law enforcement agency’s therapy dog program, The Qualter Project, for the past two years.
Holton is a Marine Corps veteran and suffers from PTSD after serving two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Besides being his crime-fighting partner, Primus is also Holton’s personal therapy dog. He wakes him up and provides comfort whenever he’s experiencing a nightmare in the middle of the night.
He realized that therapy dogs like Primus could also make a difference with child abuse victims, so he started conducting research about Florida child abuse statutes and wrote a grant proposal targeted at fighting child abuse for UCF Professor Elizabeth Mustaine’s child abuse and society master’s course.
Holton found legislation permitting therapy dogs during child abuse victim interviews, but wasn’t aware of any law enforcement agency actually putting the law into action. Mustaine supported Holton, and had the entire class focus on drafting a grant proposal for the therapy dog project.
After the grant proposal was created, BCSO Sheriff Wayne Ivey assisted Holton with implementing The Qualter Project therapy dog program into the Special Victims Unit department in 2013, which is named in honor of Lieutenant Mike Qualter, who was an advocate for child victims. The therapy dog program, a first in the U.S., puts children at ease and has seen the disclosure rate of child abuse victims increase from 36 percent to 82 percent.
Holton has taken his mission further by initiating the Paws & Stripes College. The educational program provides women inmates with an opportunity to train shelter dogs in becoming child abuse victim therapy dogs.
The Qualter Project is expanding and will be assisting law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. with its free training center, which is slated to open in September 2015. The BCSO facility will feature kennels, 40 dogs from the Paws & Stripes College, a classroom, Eastern Florida State College’s vet-tech school, and a homey area with a kitchen, bedroom and viewing room.
Holton wanted to take his career to the next level by working toward his doctorate in education with a concentration in organizational sociology. The program provided a customized, practitioner’s degree, which helped him develop the Law Enforcement, Academic and Direct Engagement Research System (LEADERS) Initiative through his dissertation in practice. The program analyzed a problem and worked with the law enforcement agency and others to figure out which solutions are plausible. Holton wants his project to grow beyond BCSO.
“I want to develop a full-time research and development unit,” Holton says. “I also wish to create a liaison between academia and law enforcement and then spread an idea. I would like to have multiple LEADERS Initiative sites in different cities throughout the entire country with the same work-group concept.”
UCF has made a difference with Holton’s therapy dog program and other projects.
“The Qualter Project and other programs wouldn’t be a reality if it wasn’t for UCF,” he says. “Students seeking a college degree from UCF should go for it. The Marine Corps laid the foundation for my work ethic and me striving to succeed, and UCF provided the higher education tools and plan. I love UCF and it will always be a big part of my life.”
This story was posted Aug. 5, 2015, on UCF Today. It has been slightly edited in accordance with AP and alumni association style guidelines. See original article.
“Horses mirror our emotions,” Lauren Parslow, ’14, says. “What we feel, they will feel.”
And, that’s what makes them especially well suited as animal partners in helping children and adults cope with physical and mental disabilities, and post-traumatic stress, while improving their interaction skills and building their confidence.
Parslow, who’s been riding and working with horses since she was 5 years old, works as the volunteer coordinator for Freedom Ride, a therapeutic horseback riding center in Orlando. She loves everything about her job, because it allows her to make a difference in the lives of others every day.
“I can see the changes in the riders, their physical and mental health improving, and their overall quality of life improving,” she explains. “I also love that I get to work with the things I am most passionate about: children and horses.”
Freedom Ride is a PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship)-accredited riding center, which provides therapeutic riding lessons that help its mentally and physically disabled participants gain core strength, posture and balance.
In addition, the non-profit organization also provides hippotherapy, a form of occupational therapy in which a therapist uses the movements of a horse to engage sensorimotor and neuromotor systems to create functional change in a patient. It also offers a military program to help veterans increase self-awareness, enhance coping skills and learn more effective ways to interact and move forward within the community and with loved ones.
Parslow originally majored in forensic science at UCF — until she took chemistry, which was extremely difficult for her. During her struggle, she was also working at the YMCA, which led her down her new path.
“I realized how much I enjoyed working with children,” she explains. “I did my research and knew I didn’t want to become a teacher, so I took the early childhood development track. I loved every class and gave 100 percent every day.”
While pursuing her degree in early childhood development and education, Parslow interned with Freedom Ride for four months to gain the hands-on experience required for her major. Now employed with the organization for almost one year, she ensures they have enough quality volunteers to care for the horses, facility, and work the classes alongside the riders.
“I think my education degree helps me offer my expertise on our riders and their behaviors that the other staff may not understand,” she says. “I’m able to offer insight into why children do certain things and not others, or what they respond to best.”
Horsin’ Around Q&A
Q. What advice do you have for current education students at UCF?
A. Enjoy what you’re studying! You’re going to be guiding future generations. A degree in this field is EXTREMELY important. I wish more people would understand that. The first eight years of life are most important. So many milestones are reached in that time frame. PLEASE enjoy what you are doing. There has to be passion for what you want to do or it will affect future generations.
Q. Describe a typical day at work.
A. The first thing I do when I arrive at work is greet all of my staff members and volunteers. We have a small staff, and we always ensure our volunteers have a great time. We’re a family, and I want to make sure that they feel that way. Throughout the day, I enter the volunteer hours into our database, work on the monthly volunteer newsletter, ensure that we have enough volunteers each day, visit the horses and riders, and am thankful that I have a job I enjoy. There are days where we may not have enough volunteers, so I’ll need to work a class, which I thoroughly enjoy! I’m always asking the other staff members if they need anything done, and I will do it if they need the help. My days go by quickly, but I always come to work with a smile on my face and leave with a smile!
Q. What’s the last thing you Googled?
A. “Trucks for sale.” Living on a farm is tough without a truck!
Q. What one thing drives you absolutely crazy?
A. I’m a firm believer that if someone says they’re going to do something, they should do it. I don’t like seeing people, or myself, get their hopes up only to have them crushed.
Q. Last book you read?
A. PATH Instructor Manual. I’m going to become a riding instructor!
Q. If someone wrote a book about you, what would the title be?
A. Happy-Go-Lucky, or something along those lines. I’m always, always happy. I always have a smile on my face and enjoy life to the fullest.
Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. The hardest thing I’ve ever done was to beat depression and anxiety. Before attending UCF, I was a very anxious and depressed teenager. I sought help from a psychologist and her dog, and overcame my depression and anxiety. Those two things are very hard to beat and overcome, but I’m glad I did. I think that’s why I’m such a happy and thankful individual.
Q. Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
A. Worrying never changes the outcome. How true is that?!
Q. What’s something you learned in the past week?
A. I’ve learned that sometimes you have to step up and take care of things when no one else is willing to help. It’s difficult, but it can be done!
Q. What’s something most people don’t know about you?
A. I’m easily intimidated, and I do NOT like confrontation.
The Equestrian Club at UCF knows that statement all too well. It brings together students of all levels, who have a passion for horses, to participate in monthly competitions that span from Savannah, Ga., to Miami, Fla.
In the National Reigning Horse Association Collegiate Riding Championships on June 27, Hunt Seat rider Morgan Sykes proved to be good on his horse. He finished second in the nation, just a half point behind the national champion.
The title is a big leap from the club’s inaugural year when it boasted only four members.
Today, there are more than 50 members participating in one non-competitive and two competitive teams within the club. The competitive side of the club is divided into two parts: Hunt Seat and Western.
Hunt Seat competes in four divisions: walking, trotting, cantering and over fences, where riders must complete a course in the correct order and positioning.
“You’re judged in Hunt Seat on the way you perform with the horse — on how you ride as a rider, how correct you are and how effective you are in your positions as a rider,” explains Josie Graham, club treasurer and Hunt Seat captain.
For fairness’ sake, the names of competing horses are drawn from a hat and assigned to a rider, who only has about five minutes with the horse before competing.
“You have this horse and you have to adapt yourself to this horse, and it really makes you into an effective rider,” Graham says.
Western team members compete in Western pleasure horsemanship and reining. Like Hunt Seat, competitors rely on a random draw for their horses.
The horses could be donated to the show for the day by volunteers or belong to the schools the at which the team competes.
The Western team is available to anyone from beginners to the open class, who are allowed to show in the reining class. Reining incorporates Western-styled patterns, spins and sliding stops into its horsemanship.
But competing isn’t the only thing on riders’ minds. Since its founding, the club has taken care of Knightro’s partner in crime, Pegasus, who circles the field at every home football game.
The non-competitive team works with the Pegasus Mascot Program, which was created in 2001 by the UCF Alma Mater Society.
The well-being of Pegasus is in the hands of squires, who spend four to five hours volunteering and watching over Pegasus during football games. They also get the mascots ready for appearances and do crowd control, says Jennifer Steele, club president and Pegasus Mascot coordinator. During the 2014-15 football season, there were 10 squires.
All members of the club also volunteer twice per semester with the club’s philanthropies.
One such organization is Heavenly Hooves, a therapeutic riding center in Kissimmee, Fla., for people with disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder. The volunteers assist in many areas of the organization, including helping with lessons, fundraising and cleaning stalls. Amy Lesch, manager of the volunteer services, says the club’s presence at Heavenly Hooves is beneficial because of their passion and experience with horses.
But, whether they’re riding their way to victory or volunteering their time, club members are all about the teamwork.
“At the end of the show, it doesn’t matter how each one of us did because we’re all a team,” says Cara Spirazza, club vice president and captain of the Western team. “I think the teamwork and the team effort of it is the most rewarding part, because we’re all there for each other. We’re all riding together and putting in all the hard work together.”
One morning recently, a dozen college students stepped out of the bright sunshine into a dimly lit room at the counseling center here at the University of Central Florida. They appeared to have little in common: undergraduates in flip-flops and nose rings, graduate students in interview-ready attire.
But all were drawn to this drop-in workshop: “Anxiety 101.”
As they sat in a circle, a therapist, Nicole Archer, asked: “When you’re anxious, how does it feel?”
“I have a faster heart rate,” whispered one young woman. “I feel panicky,” said another. Sweating. Ragged breathing. Insomnia.
Causes? Schoolwork, they all replied. Money. Relationships. The more they thought about what they had to do, the students said, the more paralyzed they became.
Anxiety has now surpassed depression as the most common mental health diagnosis among college students, though depression, too, is on the rise. More than half of students visiting campus clinics cite anxiety as a health concern, according to a recent study of more than 100,000 students nationwide by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State.
Nearly one in six college students has been diagnosed with or treated for anxiety within the last 12 months, according to the annual national survey by the American College Health Association.
The causes range widely, experts say, from mounting academic pressure at earlier ages to overprotective parents to compulsive engagement with social media. Anxiety has always played a role in the developmental drama of a student’s life, but now more students experience anxiety so intense and overwhelming that they are seeking professional counseling.
As students finish a college year during which these cases continued to spike, the consensus among therapists is that treating anxiety has become an enormous challenge for campus mental health centers.
Like many college clinics, the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Central Florida — one of the country’s largest and fastest-growing universities, with roughly 60,000 students — has seen sharp increases in the number of clients: 15.2 percent over last year alone. The center has grown so rapidly that some supply closets have been converted to therapists’ offices.
More students are seeking help partly because the stigma around mental health issues is lessening, noted Stephanie Preston, a counselor at UCF.
Preston has seen the uptick in anxiety among her student clients. One gets panic attacks merely at the thought of being called upon in class. And anxiety was among a constellation of diagnoses that became life-threatening for another client, Nicholas Graves.
Two years ago, Graves, a stocky cinema studies major in jeans, a T-shirt and Converse sneakers, could scarcely get to class. That involved walking past groups of people and riding a bus — and Graves felt that everyone was staring at him.
He started cutting himself. He was hospitalized twice for psychiatric observation.
After some sessions with Preston, group therapy and medication, Graves, 21, who sat in an office at the center recently describing his harrowing journey, said he has made great progress.
“I’m more focused in school, and I’ve made more friends in my film courses — I found my tribe,” he said, smiling. “I’ve been open about my anxiety and depression. I’m not ashamed anymore.”
Anxiety has become emblematic of the current generation of college students, said Dan Jones, the director of counseling and psychological services at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.
Because of escalating pressures during high school, he and other experts say, students arrive at college preloaded with stress. Accustomed to extreme parental oversight, many seem unable to steer themselves. And with parents so accessible, students have had less incentive to develop life skills.
“A lot are coming to school who don’t have the resilience of previous generations,” Jones said. “They can’t tolerate discomfort or having to struggle. A primary symptom is worrying, and they don’t have the ability to soothe themselves.”
Social media is a gnawing, roiling constant. As students see posts about everyone else’s fabulous experiences, the inevitable comparisons erode their self-esteem. The popular term is “FOMO” — fear of missing out.
And so personal setbacks that might once have become “teachable moments” turn into triggers for a mental health diagnosis.
“Students are seeking treatment, saying, ‘I just got the first C in my life, my whole life just got shattered, I wanted to go to medical school and I can’t cope,’” said Micky Sharma, president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors and head of Ohio State University’s counseling center.
Anxiety is an umbrella term for several disorders, including social anxiety disorder and agoraphobia. It can accompany many other diagnoses, such as depression, and it can be persistent and incapacitating.
Students who suffer from this acute manifestation can feel their very real struggles are shrugged off, because anxiety has become so ubiquitous, almost a cliché, on campus.
Alexa, 18, has been treated for an anxiety disorder since middle school, when she was still feeling terrorized by monsters under the bed. She has just finished her freshman year at Queens College in New York.
If she had a severe episode during a test, afterward she would try to explain to her professors what had happened but they would dismiss her. “They’d say, ‘Your mind isn’t focused,’ or ‘That’s just an excuse,’ ” said Alexa, who wrote her college application essay about grappling with the disorder. She asked not to be fully identified for privacy reasons.
More often, anxiety is mild, intermittent or temporary, the manifestation of a student in the grip of a normal developmental issue — learning time management, for example, or how to handle rejection from a sorority.
Mild anxiety is often treatable with early, modest interventions. But to care for rising numbers of severely troubled students, many counseling centers have moved to triage protocols. That means that students with less urgent needs may wait several weeks for first appointments.
“A month into the semester, a student is having panic attacks about coming to class, but the wait list at the counseling center is two to five weeks out. So something the student could recover from quickly might only get worse,” said Ben Locke, associate director of clinical services at Penn State University and the lead author of the Penn State report.
By necessity, most centers can only offer individual therapy on a short-term basis. Preston estimates that about 80 percent of clients at UCF need only limited therapy.
“Students are busting their butts academically, they’re financially strapped, working three jobs,” she said. “There’s nothing diagnosable, but sometimes they just need a place to express their distress.”
Even with 30 therapists, the center at UCF must find other ways to reach more students — especially the ones who suffer, smoldering, but don’t seek help.
Like many college counseling centers, UCF has designed a variety of daily workshops and therapy groups that implicitly and explicitly address anxiety, depression and their triggers. Next fall the center will test a new app for treating anxiety with a seven-module cognitive behavioral program, accessible through a student’s phone and augmented with brief video conferences with a therapist.
It also offers semester-long, 90-minute weekly therapy groups, such as “Keeping Calm and in Control,” “Mindfulness for Depression” and “Building Social Confidence” — for students struggling with social anxiety.
The therapists have to be prepared to manage students who present a wide array of challenges. “You never know who is going to walk in,” said Karen Hofmann, the center’s director. “Someone going through a divorce. Mourning the death of a parent. Managing a bipolar disorder. Or they’re transgender and need a letter for hormone therapy.”
Indeed, Locke and his colleagues at Penn State, who have tracked campus counseling centers nationwide for six years, have documented a trend that other studies have noted: Students are arriving with ever more severe mental-health issues.
Half of clients at mental health centers in their most recent report had already had some form of counseling before college. One-third have taken psychiatric medication. One quarter have self-injured.
The fundamental goal of campus counseling centers is to help students complete their education. According to federal statistics, just 59 percent of students who matriculated at four year colleges in 2006 graduated within six years.
Studies have repeatedly emphasized the nexus between mental health and academic success. In a survey this year at Ohio State’s center, just over half of the student clients said that counseling was instrumental in helping them remain in school.
Anxiety-ridden students list schoolwork as their chief stressor. UCF’s center and after-hours hotline are busiest when midterm and final exams loom. That’s when the center runs what has become its most popular event: “Paws-a-tively Stress Free.”
The other afternoon, just before finals week, students, tired and apprehensive, trickled into the center. The majority were not clients.
At a tent outside, their greeter was the center’s mascot and irresistible magnet: a 14-pound Havanese, a certified therapy dog whom many clients ask to hold during individual sessions, stroking his silky white coat to alleviate anxiety.
“Bodhi!” they called, as he trotted over, welcoming them to his turf with a friendly sniff.
For the next two hours, some 75 students visited the center, sitting on floors for a heavy petting session with therapy dogs.
They laughed at the dogs’ antics and rubbed their bellies. They remarked on how nice it was to get a study break.
On the way out, the students were handed a smoothie and a “stress kit,” which included a mandala, crayons, markers, stress balls and “Smarties” candy.
Also tucked into the kit was a card with information about how to contact the center, should they ever need something more.
This article appeared in a May 27, 2015, edition of the New York Times online. It has been slightly edited in accordance with UCF Alumni Association and AP style guidelines. See original story.