The Counseling Center: Expectations vs. Reality

Two weeks ago, I felt lucky to publish an editorial sharing my (primarily negative) experiences at Amherst’s Counseling Center. It gave me and, I hope, other students an outlet to express a deep frustration with the administration’s stubborn refusal to accept the prevalence of mental health problems on campus. This week, following an edifying conversation with Jacqueline Alvarez, director of the Counseling Center, I feel equally lucky to pass on information to students in need of help, as well as clarify a few points from my previous article.

I agreed with Alvarez on many counts, including the need for administrative action to change Amherst’s isolating, perfectionist culture that often prioritizes academic success at the expense of students’ well-being, as though those two things are not intrinsically connected. Alvarez informed me that she sees this problem as being fairly unique to Amherst; compared to similar-size schools such as Williams and Swarthmore, it is difficult to drop classes or take classes pass/fail due to mental health reasons. I understand how this perhaps dangerously rigorous atmosphere is exacerbated by aspects of social life like the athlete/non-athlete divide, which have the potential to leave students feeling alienated by their classmates. This, of course, I don’t dispute.

She also reminded me that the first time I went to the Counseling Center in the spring of my freshman year, they scheduled a follow-up appointment for me that I then cancelled. The second time I went, they offered me an appointment with a psychiatrist. I do acknowledge and understand how these lapses in my memory may seem unfair to Counseling Center staff, but I think these facts actually highlight the negative aspects of my Counseling Center experience: I felt unwelcome enough to refuse further care the first time, and I was offered something I explicitly told the Counseling Center I didn’t need (I already had a psychiatrist when they offered to make me a psychiatric appointment). Then, when I looked into making an appointment with that same psychiatrist a few months later, the referral had already expired, and it didn’t feel worth it to pursue getting another one. In any case, I mention these discrepancies to demonstrate how important it is to me that this dialogue is open and honest, and I do apologize for forgetting them in my last article.

I must, however, take issue with the fact that at my meeting with Alvarez, I was accused of discouraging people from accessing their services and risking more tragic deaths like Chris Collins’, as if by being honest I was guaranteeing more tragedy. The more time passes from the moment I heard that comment, the more sickened I am that anyone would put that responsibility on a student. I also can’t help but feel that this claim was meant to guilt me out of speaking frankly about what students on this campus can expect from their resources and ensure that I do not put Amherst College in a bad position. To that, I would encourage the college (as I did face-to-face with Ms. Alvarez) to clearly and explicitly state their abilities. For now, I want to share what I learned about the Counseling Center’s offerings so students can have a better chance to make the most of them.

Since my first-year orientation, my impression has always been that the Counseling Center can offer any and all types of psychological and psychiatric assistance. Emails from class deans and administration consistently telling students that they should go to the Counseling Center if they are stressed have done nothing to dispel that notion. Moreover, when I questioned a number of my peers, they had similar beliefs to my own.

In fact, the Counseling Center is meant for “brief” treatment (an average of seven appointments per patient, although there is a broad range), as it mentions about three-quarters of the way down its website’s home page. I understand that this is the case because the administration does not give the Counseling Center the budget to hire an adequate number of employees, but the misconception here is unacceptable, especially because it results in students feeling singled out and isolated when they don’t find what they’re looking for. I call on the center, as well as other members of the administration like class deans, to be more forthright when they vaguely encourage students to seek help whenever they feel stressed. As I told Alvarez, I think this increased awareness could easily be accomplished by table tents in Val or posters put up around campus listing facts about the Counseling Center and directing students to resources that are more likely to meet their needs, such as members of the Wellness Team or text and call lines outside of the college.

While I recognize that redirecting students to local therapists is problematic in that certain students will inevitably be unable to afford these services, I do accept that it is a necessary evil under the current system. This being the case, a comprehensive list of these therapists and their contact information should be easily accessible on the Counseling Center’s website (along with a clear explanation of when students should be looking to these people instead of campus staff), and listed professionals should be able to give referrals to Amherst’s psychiatry service.

I also encourage the Counseling Center to create an outpost on the main campus where students can go to drop-in hours with a counselor, ideally in the Health Center, so that mental wellness is legitimized as a health issue, and so no one knows what services a student is specifically seeking. Not only will this save many students’ time, it also makes it more accessible to differently-abled students, for whom walking to Hitchcock or Scott House is not realistic.

Finally, the Counseling Center should seek out anonymous feedback from students and this forum should be prominently featured on their website. When I went to meet with members of the Counseling Center staff after I shared my story and the stories I was sent after publishing my article last week, I was told they “didn’t sound like something any of the counselors would do.” This comment seems indicative of a lack of honest communication between the student body and the Counseling Center — the same lack of communication that creates misunderstandings over what services are actually offered. I refuse to mistrust my peers, who have no reason to lie about what treatment they received, just as I refuse to blame them for not being satisfied with their experience. Just because a counselor is hired by the college does not mean they are infallible. Students should be able to hold them accountable for what they do, especially when these interactions have the potential to save lives. Being told that they have made mistakes is not a condemnation of these counselors, but a prompt for improvement.

In that spirit, I hope this article, as well as the one I already published, will be taken as an opportunity for positive change. There are concrete changes that the faculty, administration and Counseling Center can make to improve students’ mental wellbeing, such as passing policies that recognize mental health as a legitimate health concern. However, in my opinion, it is most important to be honest. Now more than ever, we need to be realistic about what mental wellness means to Amherst. I call on the Counseling Center to make better use of table tents, posters and their website to clarify what services they actually offer and to respect students’ feedback when those services miss the mark. The current lack of clear communication has been detrimental to me and the many students who reached out to me about similar experiences, but is not unfixable. And if now is not the time to raise these concerns, when is?