Counseling Center limits number of visits per year

As midterm season begins, more students seek ways to cope with the stress of exams. Some turn to the Counseling Center for support.

But starting this year, the Center will implement changes that will affect how students will be able to seek help. The changes include swapping the visitor walk-in process with a triage model and setting a 15-visit limit per student per academic year.

In the last few years, the total number of attended sessions increased from 5,438 in 2010-2011 to 9,083 in 2013-2014. Counseling Center Director Ernesto Escoto attributes this to the increasing stress in our society.

“The amount of stress that our students are experiencing coming to campus, and not only to do well but also to gain the skills necessary to enter the workforce, is very high,” he said. “And as you can tell from our data, anxiety is our number one concern.”

However, the decision to limit student visits to 15 is not arbitrary.

According to Escoto, the Center works in a short-term scope. This means that their services are based on follow-up appointments that they schedule every other week, meaning that a student could then have up to eight scheduled visits per semester.

“We can say, you know, you only get 15 sessions per academic year, and really you need that many sessions in the period of two months or three months, and that certainly is not something that we would be able to sustain,” Escoto said.

This is not a firm limit, however, as the Counseling Center will still see those who have exceeded their limit and require additional help. Still, according to Escoto, students only visit the center an average of five to six times per academic year.

“So, in fact, that number is significantly above the average number of sessions that a students sees us,” Escoto said. “Having said that, there is some flexibility if a student needs to be seen for an additional two to three sessions just to make sure that they get adequate care, we will certainly consider that service.”

To some, like junior Alyssa Zirkman, these changes do not sit well, particularly the 15-visit limit. She said the changes are “ridiculous.”

Zirkman has frequently visited the Counseling Center and says she is grateful for their help even though, to her, being seen was always a difficult process.

“The Counseling Center may be the only option for some students, and that they are putting a limit on the aid of students’ well-being makes me furious,” she said.

Though the center is working on expanding the staff, these changes are being implemented, in part, because of the center’s limited resources. The Counseling Center currently houses seven psychologists, two full-time contract therapists, three part-time psychiatrists and ten doctoral-level interns. 

According to Escoto, because the center staff is comprised of mostly psychologists trained as generalists, they concentrate on anxiety, depression and sometimes bipolar disorder, but if a student is unstable, they may require at least biweekly therapy.

“We don’t have the resources to be able to do that,” he said.

About eight to ten percent of the total number of students that visit the counseling center require additional outside help, Escoto said. So when students with severe and chronic mental illness go to the counseling center, they will be referred to an outside specialist.

If a student is in acute distress, however, the Counseling Center will see them and make sure that they’re stable before they connect them to someone in the community.

For cases like these, the Counseling Center has implemented a triage model to replace their regular walk-in process from previous years.

Students are now able to call and request to speak to a therapist, or they can show up and ask to be seen. This allows the center to do a brief assessment of the presenting concerns. The center will then evaluate whether or not they are a threat to themselves or to other people and either stabilize them over the phone or call them in to be seen by someone in the center.

“If they call and we determine that they need to be seen right away, we say, ‘Can you get somebody to bring you to the Counseling Center?’ or ‘Do you feel comfortable walking to the counseling center?’” Escoto said. “Then we make sure that they get seen right away, and if they need to be hospitalized after that, we make sure that happens.”

David Pearl-Schwartz started UM’s Active Minds chapter last year. Active Minds is a mental health organization on campus that works to get rid of the negative stigma surrounding mental health. Pearl-Schwartz says that, though he understands the reason for the limit, he thinks the limit won’t help in fostering consistent help in mental well-being.

“I think they’re making the best of the situation that they’re in,” he said. “We hope that in the future as an organization we can work to expand the resources that are available to the Counseling Center.”

Senior Sarah Kamakawiwo’ole, has had positive experiences with the Counseling Center. She said that the center has helped her by providing feedback and supporting her.

“I think that the Counseling Center has a really bad rep that isn’t always a fair call,” Kamakawiwo’ole said. “When you look at the size of their staff and how many people they are supposed to support, it’s no surprise that so many people think they’re poor quality – they’re stretched far too thin in every way, every day.”

She also said that she thinks that people should be patient when seeking therapy.

“You can’t just tell a stranger about your life in 30 minutes and then get some perfect formula or ten-step plan that’s going to fix everything,” Kamakawiwo’ole said. “That’s not how counseling works. That’s not how people work.”

According to Escoto, these changes are to accommodate this growing number of patients. And, as far as whether they’re here to stay, Escoto said that he does not see it slowing down. However, even though visits are increasing, Escoto said that there are no further plans to continue expanding the center’s resources and right now, the center’s solution to accommodate the increase in visits is the new policy.

“I don’t think that we can sustain a continued worsening of mental health of our citizens in the U.S.,” he said. “But we haven’t seen it slow down yet.”