Double Down on Mental Health

The Editorial Board calls on the college to double its counseling center staff following students' complaints and the recent release of the Needs Assessment Report in the latest Anti-Racism Action Plan Update.

As President Biddy Martin acknowledged in her most recent update on the Anti-Racism Action Plan, the recent Needs Assessment Report found that the Counseling Center is not adequately serving the student body. For students, this comes as no surprise. Counseling Center staff are trying their best, but they simply don’t have the resources they need to serve a student body of our size — especially during a time like today when countless students are still struggling with the consequences of the ongoing pandemic.

The clear root of many students’ problems with the Counseling Center is the same as the root of many of the college’s other ongoing issues: understaffing. With just one case manager, one psychiatrist and a few counselors, the center simply lacks enough staff to adequately meet students’ mental health needs.

But a clear problem luckily means a clear solution: the college should double the size of its counseling center staff to restore service accessibility to an acceptable level.

Williams College, our lifelong rival with a similarly sized endowment and student body, has over twice as many counselors as we do. Nearby Smith College, also similarly sized, though with about half the endowment, also surpasses our counseling center in its number of staff, and thus in services offered.

The problems of understaffing are many. Counseling Center staff are forced to triage when assigning students appointment times — some within a two-week frame and others within a month — and students have been devastated to hear their problems don’t warrant urgency. The disproportionate counselor-student ratio makes it extremely difficult for counselors and students to form the personal bonds integral to the success of the brief style of therapy the college offers. Sometimes, the appointment never comes and the student is directed to an off-campus counselor, saddling that student with even more logistical labor. All these problems come together to create yet another barrier for students to overcome in order to access services — an especially harrowing challenge for the many who have never had experience with mental health services before coming to campus. For some, it discourages them from reaching out altogether.

The college is aware of the pandemic’s mental health impact on its students. Its response has been generalized, impersonal resources wanting in quality. It has extensively advertised the MySSP app, for example. The Counseling Center holds groups for those struggling with various problems and advertises them in the Daily Mammoth, but students aren’t always comfortable with sharing their struggles in group settings and workshops can’t always be an adequate replacement for one-on-one conversations. When students go to the counseling center, they often aren’t looking simply for these general resources — they’re looking for a personal treatment plan, whether that be in the form of therapy or medication.

And having the center understaffed while students need more help than ever means a heightened workload for staff — contributing to the college’s known issue of poor staff treatment. The stress borne by an undersized department, especially one dealing with the mental health of students at school, prevents the effective running of that department. Intake sessions are often half-filled with discussion of logistics, and counselors are sometimes forced to email students when they’re off hours to schedule appointments. These duties take time and energy away from both their work as counselors and much-needed rest time off the clock.

Increasing the staffing of the counseling center would allow for a greater delegation of roles so staff members can focus solely on their specific duties — whether they be case-management, consultations, psychiatry or individual counseling — rather than trying to perform their role on top of the various other tasks that are necessary to keep the counseling center functioning. It would help students overcome the barrier of reaching out and make aid just that more accessible.

We understand that the college is experiencing difficulty finding prospective counselors in light of a nationwide shortage of mental health providers. But as in the case of the national worker shortage cited by the college in regardings to other staffing issues, we reaffirm that labor shortages can only be considered shortages when employers like the college do what they can to make themselves competitive — to become places people want to, rather than have to, work. The college has the resources and the motive to offer enticing benefits and pay; failure to do so is the fault of the administration, not its prospective workers.

Change shouldn’t be forced or reluctant when the college not only has the capacity to broaden its mental health services but also promises to help every single student here thrive. Change shouldn’t always come after the repeated expressions of grievances from the community, but rather, it should be proactive and structural — instead of hiring counselors one by one in response to specific demands, Amherst should take bigger actions considering the problems we have been experiencing are pressing and cannot be resolved through slow and tiny steps.

The Needs Assessment Report is a good first step. Doubling the staff at the Counseling Center should be the next.

Correction at Oct. 7, 2021, 9:10 a.m.: This article originally suggested that the college provided premium Headspace memberships to its students. In fact, Headspace memberships are provided by the AAS rather than the administration. The Student regrets this error, and has accordingly removed the claim from the text.