Improve care for students suffering from mental illness
Tomorrow, on your walk to class, look around you. Blooms break from the earth in a brilliant display of color as the end of the semester draws into our collective consciousness. It should be a happy time. People certainly will seem happy, laughing and enjoying the new spring warmth, waiting for summer to whisk them away. But joyful as the scene is, a tough truth hides in the people you see. Behind one out of every five of those sun-stained faces, perhaps laughing along with the others, is a young adult struggling with a diagnosable mental illness. This statistic is supplied by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Some estimates suggest that the ratio is even higher, at nearly one in four, according to the World Health Organization. Though attitudes on mental health are softening in the United States, there still exists a stigma against seeking the proper help. This rings somewhat true even among Brandeis’ forward-thinking student body.
It would be prudent to make accessing the mental health assistance required by the student body as painless as possible. Yet this is not the case; the current structures in place to treat and prevent mental illness often fall short of the needs of Brandeis students. The Brandeis Counseling Center, the hub of professional mental help on campus, is seen by many of the students that I interviewed as an overworked, understaffed machine incapable of fully dispensing the necessary care to the requisite amount of students who need it. The mental health of our students should be as important as their physical health, and it is not being treated as such. This is not to disparage the good of the BCC, as their work is always professional and typically excellent. We simply need more of it.
Foremost is the problem of the gap in processing time between a student’s initial contact with the BCC and their first counseling session. The availability of the medical professionals at the BCC is also a problem, according to my own preliminary interviews.
One such story was particularly egregious. “I went into the BCC and had to wait two weeks for a consultation. Then, another month for a therapist, who did not have the resources to meet my needs and referred me elsewhere,” commented a student who wished to remain anonymous. The student reported that they were suffering from frequent, debilitating panic attacks. They were told that they needed therapy every week, a frequency that the BCC could not provide.
This theme of understaffing and limited time is constant across most, if not all interviewees. “Their therapists are really wonderful … I know that they are understaffed and they are working to accommodate students to the best of their ability … but I wish I could have a weekly meeting rather than every other week,” said Gabi Benisti ’20, the only person out of five interviewees who agreed to have her name published.
Another student who visited the center was approved for individual therapy quickly but cited difficulties finding time in the therapist's schedule to have sessions. Keeping with the theme, a third said, “I think that the BCC has a lot of good resources and every report I’ve heard of people who have experienced counseling has been positive …but the process students need to go through to get that help is so convoluted and difficult, especially students that need help, it might as well not be offered.”
Interviews with older students suggest that there seems to have been an increase in student traffic to the BCC in the past year. At press time, the BCC had not responded to requests for comment, so a statistical analysis of student traffic to the BCC is not yet possible. One student recounted how they have been pushed out of weekly therapy. “I was able to meet with [the therapist] every week in the spring of 2016. She told me I couldn’t do that in the fall and that we’d have to meet every other week,” they said. “They don’t have enough staff members,” the student continued. They later went on to explain that even if a student needing therapy wanted to meet with a BCC therapist outside of her Brandeis hours in her private practice, this was not allowed due to conflict of interest rules.
Why are these problems occurring? One of the key issues with the BCC’s current operation is simply the number of medical professionals on staff. Currently, there are a total of 18 licensed Ph.D and Psy.D/M.D holding professionals in the BCC, along with several LICSW-holding social workers and a handful of Masters student interns. The total count for BCC staff is 30, per the BCC website. These numbers are far better than the national mean for similarly sized universities, according to the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors 2015 survey. In 2015, the total student enrollment at Brandeis was 5,657. If we hold University enrollment relatively constant and take into account new hiring at the BCC before the Fall 2016 semester — when five new clinicians were hired, according to an Oct. 10, 2016 article in the Brandeis Hoot — the ratio of mental health professionals to students at Brandeis is about 1 to 188. If we control for non-practicing administrators at the BCC, the number rises to 1 to 195.
Although these numbers are much better than the national mean ratio for small, private universities — which is 1 to 1,999 according to the AUCCCD — a particularity of Brandeis itself makes this relatively high ratio of mental health professionals to students less effective. According to an Oct. 14, 2013 independent administrative review of the BCC and the Health Center published by the University, the Brandeis students utilized the BCC at an average rate of 9.1 sessions per student. This figure was 82 percent higher than the 5.0 sessions an average student attended at similarly-sized universities in the United States. If we take into account the relative difficulty students are having obtaining individual therapy as of late, it would appear that the 82 percent figure has either jumped due to an increased number of visits per student, or that more students are using the BCC in general. Additionally, the report deemed the wait for intake appointments “a serious concern” and called the BCC’s claim that 80 percent of students requesting intake appointments receive them within a week “not credible.”
Finally, in the minds of many students, the relatively high use of the BCC creates a kind of mental illness “triage” effect; they feel that the most extreme cases are highlighted for individual therapy, and all the others are pushed to join therapy groups that are hosted by the BCC. The result is a middle group of students with mental illnesses that do not feel adequately treated. “Often students will be directed to group therapy based on the seriousness of their issue, but in reality, it’s more a question of what type of help you need,” said one student. Extensive group therapy at Brandeis seems to be a bad idea, given that the entire undergraduate population of the school is only around 3,700. Discomfort at the idea of joining a therapy group which would likely be made up of a slew of acquaintances is understandable. The seeming push toward group therapy alienated at least one of my interviewees from going to the BCC at all.
Brandeis cares about its students. From the professors to the administrators to the BCC itself, there exists no doubt in my mind about that. For that reason, the apparent failure of the BCC to fully accommodate the demand for its services is disappointing. However, I do have faith that these issues in mental health treatment at Brandeis are the temporary missteps of a typically graceful and highly effective organization.