Editor’s Note: This article is the second 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.
Last week, The Student reported on the search for a new counselor to supplement resources at the Counseling Center. This week, students speak on their experiences with the center and areas they see for improvement.
Visiting the Center
Alex Frenett ’18 started attending therapy at the Counseling Center in the spring semester of his sophomore year and continued through the end of his junior year. When Frenett was able to meet frequently with his counselor — once every week or once every two weeks — the two were able to “get deeper into what I wanted to talk about.”
Frequent sessions ensured that the counselor retained more information about Frenett’s treatment and challenges, meaning that each session continued smoothly from one session to the next.
Soon, however, the only appointments available to Frenett were scheduled three to four weeks apart. “It just wasn’t worth it for me,” he said. “It wasn’t frequent enough to be helpful.”
His counselor advised him to see a psychiatrist to start medication, telling him he should see the psychiatrist once every two weeks to monitor the effects of the medication. The first two sessions, he said, were two weeks apart, but after that, even as he was increasing the dosage of the medication, the frequency of the appointments decreased.
Frenett felt that he was stable enough and decided not to seek counseling off campus, but he acknowledged that continual counseling would have helped him better manage his senior year.
“There were points during senior year where I thought I should [go to counseling], but I was just very discouraged and ended up not doing anything” he said. “It ended up being fine, but … having regular appointments senior year would’ve helped.”
Emma Wilfert ’20 visited the Counseling Center twice — first at the end of her first year and then again in the middle of her sophomore year when her anxiety began heavily interfering with her everyday life and she started having suicidal thoughts.
Wilfert said she was clear about seeking semi-regular therapy, but “the first time I’d gone, it was like ‘This isn’t bad enough’ and the second time was ‘This is too bad.’”
After her second visit, a case manager with the college told her she’d put Wilfert in touch with a therapist in the area, but Wilfert ended up having to email her a reminder after a week passed without an update.
“It’s one of those things where, yes, they’re very overworked, but that week could’ve made a big difference in my life,” Wilfert said. She ended up finding a “really great” therapist in town with whom she has weekly appointments.
For Lesley Martinez ’20, the counselor and psychiatrist she saw provided adequate treatment — whenever her therapist sensed that she needed more than one session every two weeks, she would make time to fit Martinez into her schedule.
Her experience with urgent care appointments, however, could have been better, she said. Urgent care appointments are typically blocked for 45 to 60 minutes long and are scheduled with the counselor on call — oftentimes someone Martinez has not seen before. The length of urgent care appointments, however, often vary depending on the counselor’s workload for the day and can be as short as 30 minutes when the center is particularly busy.
When the session is with someone new, Martinez said, it takes time to build trust and provide context for what she’s feeling.
“Just 15 more minutes would be good enough,” Martinez said.
Toward the end of her sophomore year, Kyra Naftel ’19 met with a therapist at the Counseling Center after feeling increased distress about personal difficulties. She left the meeting feeling “lighter” and was looking forward to scheduling more sessions in the future. The counselor she met with, however, became unexpectedly unavailable, and the Counseling Center couldn’t find a time to schedule her with any other counselor for the next month.
Naftel went abroad the following semester, but when she returned, she said she didn’t even want to try booking another appointment. “I kind of rationalized it — they’re overburdened and I’m sure there are people who have worse problems than I do,” she recalled thinking to herself.
After the deaths on campus last year, however, she realized the importance of destigmatizing mental health and making sure people get the resources they need. “It is really important on this campus, and even in the one session I had, I felt a big difference,” she said. “But maybe I’m less optimistic about how frequently I’ll be able to use the services.”
All of the students who spoke with The Student recognized that the Counseling Center is doing the best it can and that it is serving students with the resources available to its staff. As they pointed out, however, that doesn’t mean that changes can’t be made.
“I don’t see a way around needing to hire more people — financially that’s a burden, obviously, but if you have a center that’s not able to help people or only helps a certain amount of people, that’s better than nothing, but where it’s at right now seems to me like it’s understaffed,” Frenett said. “It can’t help the number of people it needs to help, from my viewpoint.”
For Wilfert, the main problem is with the way the Counseling Center is marketed on campus — during orientation, workshops and presentations — both as a “valuable long-term psychiatric resource” or a one-stop shop for all mental health issues. Upon her first visit, Wilfert’s condition didn’t warrant high-crisis treatment per se; she’d sought someone with whom she could talk to about everyday challenges — a difficult day, a panic attack, relationship trouble and academic stresses. Now, she understands that the Counseling Center cannot provide sustainable service of that kind, but she said making that clear from the beginning would have clarified where she could go to find the support she needed.
“Since [these resources] don’t exist and it’s not really reasonable for them to exist on college campuses, I think it would be helpful to have other resources that could provide that service,” she said. She suggested a counterpart to Amherst College Emergency Medical Services (ACEMS) that would train students to run warmlines — a phone line that could provide support to students with non-urgent needs — and provide peer support to students looking for someone to talk to about low-crisis struggles.
“Say I was just having a panic attack one day — I could talk to a student friend,” Wilfert explained, referencing a similar program at Kenyon College. “The next day, I’m feeling suicidal, and that’s the time I might be redirected to the Counseling Center, and they might not be as bogged down with people dealing with everyday things as they would otherwise.”
As the new chief student affairs officer, Hikaru Kozuma intends to work with different departments on campus to reframe the model of mental wellness.
“It could mean having a person they can talk to about a whole host of different things,” he said. “It may not need to be in a therapeutic relationship … [Counseling Center Director Jacqueline Alvarez and I] talked about other departments that have and can contribute to this, whether it’s health education, Residential Life, Religious and Spiritual Life, the health center.”
“I’m used to working in institutions where everyone takes a piece of this challenge so it’s not on any one department or one person,” he added. “Not to replace a counselor, but to help overall efforts for folks to have someone to talk to.”
According to Alvarez, the Counseling Center is also seeking out alternative ways to meet students’ needs. Last year, the center piloted a four-part series called Anxiety and Me, which taught anxiety management skills with the expectation that students would practice and apply the skills between classes. Students were also invited to talk about their own personal experiences with anxiety in the class. The center will expand these offerings, as well as therapy groups focused on addressing a particular issue.
“I don’t mean to say we are perfect by any stretch because there’s deep need, and for people who really, really need support and treatment, I think we do pretty good work,” Alvarez said. “There may be more needs that could be met in different ways, and that’s where we really need to grow.”
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.