The University of Central Florida recently became the first public university in the state to offer students neurofeedback therapy, a treatment for various mental-health disorders that helps patients gain more control over their brain activity.

UCF’s addition of neurofeedback therapy comes at a time when demand for mental-health services on college campuses is on the rise across the country. More than 58 percent of college students reported overwhelming feelings of anxiety in the previous 12 months in a spring 2016 National College Health Assessment report created by the American College Health Association. That’s up from the 50.6 percent of students who reported overwhelming anxiety in spring 2011. Feelings of depression also have risen: 36.7 percent of students reported high levels of depression in a spring 2016 report compared to 31.1 percent in spring 2011.

The neurofeedback therapy at UCF is housed in the 10,000-square-foot addition of the Health Center that opened in November.

Anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and substance abuse are common mental health issues that neurofeedback therapy can help. Electrodes measure brain waves in real-time as a patient works through a task such as flying a character through hoops in a video game using just his or her mind. Patients receive positive visual and audio feedback when they direct the character through a hoop, for example, but when the patient’s mind wanders from the task at hand, the character veers off course. Over numerous therapy sessions, this can improve a patient’s self-regulation skills and ability to control anxiety, emotions and attentiveness through operant conditioning.

“Worrying or racing thoughts often are tied with college students. Even in individuals who are high achievers, it can be hard to quiet their mind,” said Collier Shepard, mental-health counselor and biofeedback consultant at the Health Center. “Neurofeedback can help people calm their mind and get rid of excessive thoughts.”

Neurofeedback therapy also can detect if a patient has an imbalance of brain waves. Using data generated from the electrodes, it can be determined if too much or too little brainwave activity is present in different locations of the brain. Irregular activity can be associated with symptoms of anxiety, depression and inattentiveness, and if identified, personalized neurofeedback training can help get a patient to a more balanced mental state.

Shepard has seen neurofeedback help one patient reduce daily migraines to once or twice a month, plus improve his overall mood. Neurofeedback also helped a patient reduce her symptoms of anxiety and depression, so much so that she was able to cut back on antidepressant medication she’d been taking for seven years.

“This gives students another option who haven’t responded well to other therapies,” Shepard said. “It’s neat to have this offered on a college campus.”

Karen Hofmann, director of UCF Counseling and Psychological Services, added: “It’s a great thing to have multiple referral options for students that fit the needs of what the student is struggling with. Anxiety, in particular, is the No. 1 presenting issue seen at CAPS.”

Neurofeedback therapy is offered only by a handful of practitioners in Central Florida. A session often costs $75-$125, Shepard said, but UCF students paying tuition have the therapy available to them for no extra cost.

UCF began offering the neurofeedback therapy in 2016 to addiction patients on an as-needed basis, but with the expansion of the Health Center, resources now are available to offer the therapy full time and for more mental-health disorders. The number of patients is expected to rise from three per week to 12, and individual sessions per month are expected to increase from 20 to 80, said Thomas Hall, director of Substance Abuse Prevention Education, Treatment & Recovery Services at UCF.

“UCF’s mental health support is the most progressive among Florida universities by far,” Hall said.

Neurofeedback at UCF also was featured on 90.7 WMFE’s Intersection show. Check it out, here.