In response to peak student demand this fall, the Brandeis Counseling Center has hired more staff members, added new therapy groups and extended its hours, according to BCC Director Joy von Steiger. 

Comparing a span of time between August and November of last year to 2017, the BCC has seen a 2,000 percent increase in student utilization of the after-hours counseling line — in other words, an increase in emergency or non-routine care — and a 90 percent increase in walk-ins, von Steiger said in a joint interview with the Justice and the Brandeis Hoot. 

As of Nov. 8,  489 students have sought initial assessments, and 591 students have been seen at the BCC this semester, according to von Steiger. 

With this increased demand, the wait period between initial assessments and first appointments reached a peak of four weeks earlier this semester, leaving many students stuck on the waitlist. 

One student told the Justice that they have found both group therapy and one-on-one sessions at the BCC helpful, though they initially had difficulty making an appointment. “It took me a long time to get my appointment, and now that I’m finally in the system, I’m fine, but for the first couple appointments, it was hard to find times, since they were so booked,” the student said. 

To address the high student demand and personnel turnover — a total of five staffers left after the spring semester — the BCC hired four new therapists in the last few weeks, with a fifth to be hired soon. With these new hires, the BCC can now offer a first appointment within a week of initial assessment, according to von Steiger. This August, the BCC also hired Case Manager Vanessa Mena-Gibson, who helps facilitate referrals for students whose needs cannot be met within the BCC. 

However, this increased demand for counseling services is not isolated, von Steiger asserted. In the past year, college counseling centers across the country have seen more students seeking mental health care, and the BCC anticipated increased demand this fall, she said.

In conversations with other college counseling centers, von Steiger said that she and other directors anticipated more demand, discussing “how much stress the whole country is under and how that stress potentially translates to there potentially being more felt experience of stress on the college campus.”

Boston College, Clark University and Wesleyan University, for example, experienced more counseling emergencies, while Emmanuel College and Lesley University had wait lists at their counseling centers for the first time, she said. 

But while the increased demand has been something of a universal trend, one thing sets the BCC apart from other college counseling centers: its overwhelmingly part-time staff.

While most colleges employ full-time counseling staff, the BCC employs 24 part-time therapists and only three full-time staffers, including von Steiger. 

“It’s just more the way we’ve always done it,” von Steiger said of the setup, which she said allows the center to attract more seasoned therapists who might also have private practices in the area. If the center limits the positions to full-time, she said, it would likely attract applicants who are less experienced. 

Additionally, the larger staff has allowed the BCC to expand its hours. As of Oct. 30, the BCC now offers extended hours on Mondays and Thursdays, staying open until 8 p.m. on those days, as opposed to 6 p.m. The center also offers urgent walk-in hours at 6 p.m. on those two days, in addition to urgent hours from 11 a.m. to noon and 3 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. 

As opposed to a routine visit, “An urgent care hour is for someone who has a need that’s not routine, so somebody who’s had a particularly upsetting day, or they’ve had a death in the family, or something that they’re feeling like they need immediate support with, and they can’t wait for a routine appointment,” von Steiger said. 

She added that there will be at least three clinicians and a supervisor on call during the new extended hours. 

The BCC has also sought to improve its diversity and cultural competence. The center hired more diverse staff members immediately following Ford Hall 2015, which saw students demand more counselors of color. The BCC also seeks to promote staff diversity with the five new hires, von Steiger said. 

The BCC, additionally, emphasizes cultural competency: in addition to English, the center offers therapy in Portuguese, Spanish, Hebrew, Mandarin and Cantonese. 

Yet there is now only one counselor who speaks the latter two languages, and for two years the BCC has had a job posting up for another Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking counselor, with no luck. Von Steiger explained that while the BCC occasionally gets applicants for this position, there are often issues with visas and green cards. As it stands, there is high demand for Dr. Aileen Lee, the part-time counselor who speaks Mandarin and Cantonese, according to von Steiger. 

That said, the BCC is committed to addressing student needs as they become apparent, she said. For example, von Steiger explained that she has met with Senior Representative to the Board of Trustees Wil Jones ’18 and Student Union President Jacob Edelman ’18 to discuss student concerns and needs. 

The BCC also gives  a questionnaire to students when they do intake, though it hasn’t sent out a survey to the community just yet — von Steiger said that the staff is worried about “survey fatigue.” 

However, student response has been increasingly positive, she said, and the “vast majority” of students return after their initial assessment for individual or group therapy. 

The BCC has put additional resources toward the latter, increasing the number of groups from four in the spring to 11 this fall. It is hoping to get a slew of new groups up and running next semester, including the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Group and the Men’s Psychotherapy Group. 

Group therapy can be just as valuable a resource for students as individual therapy, von Steiger said, adding that it can make students with depression or anxiety feel that they “matter” and are less isolated on campus.

“One of the most important reasons why we’re investing in the group program is that one of the most important things that students need to learn at this age is how to rely on each other for care and how to ask peers for help,” von Steiger said. “So we want to try to celebrate the ways in which students can support each other, in addition to continuing to offer what we offer here.”