Many campus counseling centers report being underfunded and understaffed, even as they are seeing more students than ever with severe mental problems. Until now, however, they've been hobbled by a lack of data to effectively make their case to funders.

A new national effort promises to change that. Called the Center for the Study of Collegiate Mental Health, the initiative allows university counseling centers to regularly record standardized data provided by student clients. Those data are then pooled with anonymous student data from many other centers, providing a detailed national picture of student mental health, says psychologist Ben Locke, PhD, the project's executive director and assistant director of The Pennsylvania State University's Center for Counseling and Psychological Services.

The effort—the largest data set ever created of students receiving counseling services—will give counselors and researchers the ability to track their own progress compared with other centers and to examine national data on student mental health trends in real time, Locke says. For example, centers will be able to pool national data on discrete student populations, such as Asian-American females or gay Hispanic males, to see if crisis rates for those populations have risen over time in their own center, and how those rates compare with those of other centers, he explains.

"By collaborating as a field, defining data standards, and pooling this data nationally, everyone wins—clients, counselors, administrators and researchers," Locke says.

The standardized data set—developed by Locke and more than 100 counseling centers nationwide—includes a mental health assessment instrument, information about client demographics and mental health histories, and details about treatment providers. Participating institutions report the data through electronic scheduling and record-keeping software. In April, the center released results from a pilot test of the collaborative research network, where 66 member institutions combined data on more than 28,000 students who received mental health services in the fall of 2008. One finding: 7 percent of students—mostly male—expressed fears of acting violently or losing control, and also reported a cluster of other symptoms such as suicidal thoughts, data showed. (More pilot data can be found at the center's main page by clicking on the "Executive Summary" icon.)

Locke also envisions longer term uses for the data, including the ability to answer questions about why and how change occurs in psychotherapy in a large naturalistic sample. To this end, the project squares with the profession's goals of demonstrating psychology's value in a changing health-care system by providing its own rigorous outcome data, he says.

"Ideally, this is a model for how to start thinking about the provision of mental health services at a much broader level," he says.

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse.