This spring marks the first semester that students grappling with mental illness at the University of Minnesota don't have to get on a waiting list before getting help.

About $290,000 that the university's Boynton Health Service received from student services fees has largely gone toward improving the availability of counseling services for students.

"We've been making great incremental strides in matching services with demand," said Carl Anderson, Boynton's chief operating officer, adding that the response from students has been favorable.

The funding was targeted to cover the cost of removing a $10 copay and to increase the amount of staff time devoted to addressing students' mental health needs, said Dave Golden, director of public health and communications for Boynton.

The university also introduced mental health services to its St. Paul campus in September, opening the Coffey Hall extension to its clinic to help meet growing demand and to make access to mental health services easier for students.

The increased attention to mental health is coming at a time when it is greatly needed. Although this is the first semester that students are not on a waiting list for therapy, Golden said demand for mental health services on campus has continued to increase.

Statewide numbers

This increase is reflected at other Minnesota campuses, too.

A statewide survey of students at 29 of Minnesota's postsecondary institutions conducted by Boynton in 2013 revealed that 36.2 percent of students reported the diagnosis of a mental illness in their lifetimes; 16.1 percent of respondents indicated that they had been diagnosed within the past year.

In 2010, when the survey was conducted at 18 campuses around the state, 29.8 percent of students reported the diagnosis of a mental illness at some point in their lives. Depression and anxiety were the two most commonly reported illnesses for both years, according to the reports.

Together, the two accounted for nearly half (45.5 percent) of respondents who said they had received the diagnosis of a mental illness, according to the 2013 report. That's up from a combined 35.7 percent in 2010.

Part of the growth in reported mental illness may be due in part to more awareness of how mental illness affects academic life and also to a better understanding of mental illness and those who suffer from it, Anderson said.

There is "more recognition of the relationship between mental health and academic success," he said. "I think that's helping to break down the barriers to seeking help." Mental illness is less stigmatized than it used to be, he added.

Texting for counseling?

Boynton will continue to look for ways to improve the mental health of students, Golden said, adding that a new student group focused on the issue will begin in fall semester.

Boynton is also pursuing a grant to study the effects of text messaging between counselors and patients as a quick way for students to get a little help without scheduling a formal appointment.

The focus now is on how "to get out to people who need help or who may need help," Golden said.

Elizabeth Hustad is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.