A new health care center at the University of St. Thomas offers both physical and mental health services under one roof to better address the growing demand for mental health resources on campus.

Before the Center for Well-Being was created, physical and mental health care were housed separately in multiple buildings, making it difficult for students to access the care they needed, St. Thomas officials said.

The center, which became fully operational last month, cost $4 million in renovations. Most of the renovation money was provided by donors to the university.

Going to several locations was hard for students, especially for those suffering from a mental illness, said Madonna McDermott, executive director of the center. Students referred to another clinic would often not make it to an appointment.

“To go to a location to find out ‘sorry, that’s where the medical clinic is, the counselors are located over here’ ... then they might not even follow through because it just takes that much effort. And they have spent their effort already,” she said.

Like colleges and universities across the country, St. Thomas is seeing an increase of students seeking help for conditions such as depression and anxiety.

With the opening of the Center for Well-Being, the school hired more staff to accommodate the increased demand and to reduce wait times. A behavioral health therapist and a case manager were hired to assist students with mental health needs in addition to physical health.

Some say societal pressures could be contributing to the uptick in demand in mental health care among college students.

“Social media is one [factor] just because of the new effects and impacts it has on unreal capabilities such as body imaging, social interactions and communications with others,” said Abby Gureski, the junior class president for St. Thomas’ Undergraduate Student Government. “A lot of people feel that they’re alone and develop higher degrees of depression because they don’t have a lot of interaction socially, one-on-one and in person.”

Gureski said the hectic schedule that comes with being a college student can lead to bad eating and sleeping habits, which can also contribute to poor mental health.

Luis de Zengotita, the director of operations for the center, said that current students may be more comfortable asking for help with mental health than other generations.

“No matter how much we expand, the demand continues. It’s difficult to ascertain what the root cause is, but a lot of people believe that it’s less stigmatized for this generation and they’re more willing to come forward for care,” de Zengotita said.

“I think it’s a good thing people are willing to have an awareness of their own needs and are advocating for it, but we as institutions need to shift resources and this is what St. Thomas is doing.”

The center also offers services such as yoga to help anxiety, spiritual counseling, and resources to prevent sexual violence, said Marilee Votel-Kvaal, the center’s medical director for health services.

In the physical health department, students can seek services for basic illnesses, and they can get flu shots and vaccines needed for certain study-abroad programs.

“During these four years, you develop some habits for the rest of your life. So if you can develop those habits while you’re here, whether that’s meditation, whether that’s yoga for anxiety, whatever it is, if you can establish that, hopefully that stays with you for the rest of your life,” said Karen Lange, vice president for student affairs.

 

Katrina Pross (katrina.pross@startribune.com) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.