To the Editorial Board:
As the director of the Counseling Center, I read the articles and opinion pieces in the Oct. 6 edition of The Amherst Student regarding our services with interest and concern. We always strive to meet our students’ needs, and when we fall short, we want to know so that we can work to resolve their concerns. I am deeply concerned that last week’s articles will discourage students from seeking care should they need it. Therefore, I write this letter to share information and resources available for immediate, on-demand and ongoing care, a number of which did not appear in last week’s issue.
Given the pandemic, we anticipated that there would be increased student demand for our services during the 2020-2021 academic year, which frequently occurs after disasters of all types, so we worked to create new services and systems of delivery. Our goals were to give students quick access to an initial assessment and to offer opportunities to connect with each other in meaningful ways, since isolation and loneliness were so prevalent last year. Here are some of the changes we made and results we’ve seen so far:
• We changed our model for first-time appointments, making them shorter and creating over 50 percent more available appointments. More than 21 percent of the student body has already accessed an initial assessment, and students are offered appointments in less than a week, with the average wait time being five days. Some students choose not to take the first available appointments and prefer to wait for times that are more convenient for their schedules, which can extend the time before they meet with a counselor to a couple of weeks or more.
• There are always services immediately available to students who are experiencing a crisis or a very urgent concern, including:
• Urgent care for students who need same-day support, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.–4 p.m.
• 24/7 text and phone counseling through MySSP
• After-hours crisis phone counseling, available by calling our main line during evenings, weekends or holidays (413-542-2354)
• Single-session treatment for students who have a specific concern and are looking for solution-focused support, usually available within a few days
• We added on-demand resources including multiple classes and support groups offered daily, and students can simply drop in to learn skills and receive support, with no appointment necessary. These classes and groups are intended to be fast tracks to recovery. Students can attend them as often as they like, receiving multiple contacts with our office every week, if they choose. These classes and groups also allow students to connect with others who are experiencing similar struggles, which often helps them feel less alone with their concerns.
• For students whose concerns need ongoing treatment, we continue to offer brief individual biweekly counseling and psychiatric medication management. Last year, we served nearly 50 percent of students through individual and group counseling, psychiatry and case management.
Finally, I’d like to share some information about our clinical services that might be helpful for students considering accessing our care:
• First-time counseling appointments are 30 minutes in length and structured to assess what the student needs. If individual counseling is recommended, subsequent appointments are scheduled, and if our groups and/or classes are recommended, we assist students in accessing them. This first appointment aims to gather enough information about the student to tailor the frequency and types of appointments to their specific needs.
• First-time psychiatry appointments are 60 to 90 minutes long, depending on the student’s presenting concerns; and follow-up appointments are approximately 30 minutes. In first-time and follow-up psychiatry appointments, we regularly educate students about their treatment options and welcome students’ questions, as well as opportunities to clarify things that may be unclear to them about their mental health care.
• Referrals. We refer a small number of students to off-campus providers when they need or prefer to be seen weekly, would like to have long-term care rather than brief treatment, or need specialty care that we do not provide. Because this process can take time due to the limited availability of community providers, students can schedule follow-up case management appointments until they secure an appointment, so they have support, regardless of how long the search takes. Case Management's goal is not only to help students connect to care, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to help students learn to navigate the healthcare system and be advocates for their care now and in the future.
It’s my hope that the information in this letter is helpful to students and provides a more complete picture of the services we offer and the way we approach our work. Everyone on the Counseling Center staff takes concerns raised by students seriously, and I would very much appreciate opportunities to talk with those students who have had negative experiences to both better understand, and to remedy, their concerns. We anticipate that students’ mental health challenges will continue throughout the pandemic, and we are committed to adapting our practice to be responsive to emerging needs. I welcome and look forward to ongoing conversations with students and our many campus partners whose work supports students’ well-being as we tackle these difficult issues together.
Jacqueline Alvarez, Ph.D.
Associate Dean of Students and Director of the Counseling Center