Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a two-part series on the the Counseling Center’s challenges balancing student need and financial resources. Resources for any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal are listed at the end of this article.
The Counseling Center will hire a new counselor this fall amid increasing student need for counseling services.
The college will prioritize counselors who are able to work with a “diverse student community with diverse student needs” as well as provide specific areas of expertise, said Chief Student Affairs Officer Hikaru Kozuma. The search will launch after Labor Day and take place over the fall semester. Ideally, Counseling Center Director Jacqueline Alvarez said, the new hire will join the counseling staff in January 2019 for training and be ready to work with students in the spring semester.
Over the years, the Counseling Center has seen continuous growth in the number of students it sees. In the 2012-2013 academic year, the center saw 15.3 percent of the student body. By this past academic year, that number had jumped to nearly 36 percent of the student body. Within five years, the center’s clientele has grown by 130 percent.
According to psychology professor Catherine Sanderson, colleges nationwide are seeing an increase of students with mental health issues, but there is not one clear explanation for the trend.
The increase, however, has overburdened the Counseling Center and resulted in decreases in session frequency and length. In the last year, the length of sessions was shortened from 50 to 45 minutes to accommodate more sessions. After the college lost three members of the community in March, it was clear the center would not be able to manage the caseload on its own. The college contacted McLean Hospital, an organization in the Boston area with a young adult mental health program, and the hospital sent as many as five people a day to work with students at Amherst.
Amherst has one of the lowest student-to-counselor ratios among similarly-sized colleges — the college has approximately 154 students per counselor compared to the mean ratio of 705 students per counselor at comparably-sized schools according to the 2016 Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors Annual Survey.
But some students see a need for more funding and staffing to improve on what the center is already doing well. These implications and student criticisms will be explored in next week’s issue of The Student.
Amherst’s Counseling Model
At Amherst, the Counseling Center works as a brief therapy model with students using services in “intermittent ways,” Alvarez said.
“Most students are served very well by a brief therapy model — we’re not receiving requests to be seen off campus for individual weekly long-term therapy very often,” she said. “The types of concerns that people are presenting to us are things which in the general community are served in a brief therapy model. In their client satisfaction surveys, the center sees “very high satisfaction rates” among students, Alvarez added.
A student using the Counseling Center typically sees a counselor every other week. The center does not usually see a student weekly unless the student is in crisis — acutely suicidal, recently hospitalized or experiencing a psychotic episode. In that case, the student will be seen three to four times a week until reaching stabilization, after which the frequency of sessions tapers.
If a student disagrees with a counselor about the extent of their counseling needs and requests more frequent appointments, the center typically provides a referral for off-campus therapy.
“We’re an educational institution, and we have health services and counseling services in part because we know that that supports learning, and we know that it supports students’ capacity to engage in the work that they’re doing,” Alvarez said. “We were never intended to replace a healthcare system as a whole.”
Sanderson echoed the point, noting that it’s always a balance in terms of seeing as many people as possible and seeing those who need it the most.
“The Counseling Center has a certain number of people — a certain number of therapists that work a certain number of hours,” Sanderson said. “Would you rather say some students get seen exactly as frequently as they need and some students are not seen entirely? Or would you rather everybody gets seen less frequently? … If I’m an individual student, I’d love to be seen more frequently. But it’s not for the good of the college if some students aren’t being seen at all because there are no longer appointment times for them.”
Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can access an Amherst College counselor by calling 413-542-2354 at any time. People can also reach trained counselors by calling the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-784-2433 or texting the Crisis Text Line at 741741.