Willamette launches 24-hour crisis hotline

by Erin Dahl ,

In response to a national growing need for mental health counseling among college students, Willamette University launched a free, 24-hour crisis hotline this month.

Portland-based company ProtoCall provides Willamette students with immediate support, assessment and referrals. When students call 503-375-5353, day or night, they will connect with counselors trained to help. 

Don Thomson, director of the Bishop Wellness Center, says ProtoCall’s counselors are familiar with the university’s policies and procedures. By responding to student needs in the moment, they will help reduce wait times at Bishop, as well as assist Willamette’s after-hours staff in dealing with crises.

The conversations between students and ProtoCall staff are kept confidential. The call logs are only shared with Thomson each morning to help him determine steps for follow-up care.

“ProtoCall is the place students can turn to in the middle of the night to talk to a live person, no matter what,” Thomson says.

Mental Health Crisis

Many people believe college counselors help with homesickness, roommate conflicts and relationship problems. Although these issues arise, counselors often devote their energy to more pressing concerns.

Says Thomson: “We routinely support students experiencing suicidal idealization, interpersonal violence, significant depression, anxiety and psychosis.”

According to an annual research survey conducted by the National College Health Assessment and American College Health Association, rates for anxiety and depression among college students across the country have grown steadily in recent years.

In 2008, 49 percent of students polled felt overwhelming anxiety. By 2015, the rate had increased to 57 percent. In the same time period, the percentage of students who suffered from debilitating depression grew from 31 to 35 percent.  

The number of students who are prescribed medication to treat mental health disorders is also on the rise. According to Thomson, the number of students who were already taking prescription medication when they saw a Bishop counselor for the first time grew by 22% between 2002 and 2015. 

In addition, Thomson says that some mental health conditions often first appear among 18- to 22-year-olds, who experience biochemical changes in their bodies and exposure to more rigorous academic and social climates.

“College is a very exciting time, but it’s also a very stressful time,” he says. “Students learn to live alone, navigate friendships and surround themselves with people very different from themselves. They question the values they grew up with.”  

Many of today’s students also put too much pressure on themselves, Thomson says. Driven to earn high marks, join several clubs, play on a sports team, land internships and plan for graduate school — all at the same time — some work until they reach crisis mode.

“They often hold themselves to unrealistic expectations,” he says. “They can’t do everything at once and do it well.”

Willamette Offers Support

Both new and long-standing measures at Willamette aim to give students the help they need. This fall, Bishop Wellness Center began offering walk-in hours from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. every weekday, and it made all counseling appointments free.

In addition, Bishop counselors talked with faculty and staff members about ways to identify signs of distress among students. The center also organized free Healthy Minds workshops for students to learn about coping and relaxation techniques, with another series planned for the spring.

Both Bishop and the Office of the Chaplains offer ongoing meditation sessions. For several years, the chaplains’ office has held mindfulness meditation workshops. Currently, they take place every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:15-5 p.m. in Waller Hall’s Cone Chapel.

Chaplain Karen Wood says meditation helps people focus on the present. As many as 15 students and staff members meet each week to sit in a circle and breathe, uninterrupted, for 10-15 minutes, followed by other meditation forms — including occasional walking meditation in the rose garden. Afterward, they talk about the process.

“Students find life at Willamette very centrifugal,” Wood says. “They are pulled in lots of different directions, and the fear of missing out creates more stress. Mindfulness creates an opportunity to move away from the stresses that drive us and just be still.”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four adults — or about 61.5 million Americans — experience mental illness in a given year. Yet, Thomson says such illnesses are often obscured by widespread public misunderstanding and prejudice that stereotype, judge and even blame sufferers for their conditions.

That’s why he’s encouraged by the Associated Students of Willamette University (ASWU), which recently formed an ad-hoc mental health committee to discuss and promote student programing about stress management. Other students, meanwhile, are working to bring to campus a chapter of the Active Minds national nonprofit. Focusing on the mental well being of college students, Active Minds helps students create awareness and educational programs.

“The stigma about mental health has broken to the point where students are talking about it,” Thomson says. “That’s a huge step in the right direction.”