Counseling center planning changes after complaints

by Martha Schick / Beacon Staff • December 4, 2014

Prompted by a new round of student concerns about counseling center shortages, administrators are considering several potential improvements to the center, including hiring more staff, extending its hours, and better publicizing its resources.

Over the last three years, the college has seen a 36 percent increase in the number of students who have sought counseling, said Elise Harrison, the director of Emerson Counseling and Psychological Services, or ECAPS. And 17 percent of the freshman class disclosed they had a psychological disorder, according to a November report to Emerson’s Faculty Assembly by Janet Kolodzy.

Yet a shortage of counseling center appointments has long been a source of frustration for students. One recent complaint on Emerson Confessional, the Facebook page that allows students to post anonymously, reads, “How am I supposed to get help when ECAPS doesnt [sic] have openings for over two weeks?”

Junior Ashley Cunningham, president of Emerson’s chapter of Active Minds, a mental health advocacy organization, said she has received six student testimonies regarding problems in the counseling center, some of which talked about the wait time.

Another student, who asked to remain anonymous, said she was forced to wait to make an appointment at the counseling center after suffering an anxiety attack in class.

“I stood in the office crying, asking to talk to someone. Two weeks, they said. And I walked out,” she wrote in a Facebook message to the Beacon. “I haven’t been back since then because I feel like I’m not taken seriously there.”

Cunningham, a marketing communication major, met with Dean of Students Ronald Ludman on Nov. 19 to discuss specific areas of concern for her and other students regarding ECAPS.

Cunningham said she and Harrison will also have a conference call with the Board of Trustee’s committee of student affairs to discuss mental health in late January or early February, before the next general board meeting. She said she was invited to call in after she attended a breakfast for students with the trustees in October and spoke to the chair of the committee, Linda Schwartz, about problems with the counseling center.

The committee had already planned to discuss student mental health before her conference call was planned, according to Cunningham, and Ludman is planning to hold off on making concrete changes until after the Board of Trustees meeting. 

In Cunningham’s meeting with Ludman, she said they discussed specific ideas, like changing the name of the center’s “Walk-In Hours” to “Urgent Care Hours,” which she said would be more representative of how the time is supposed to be used. She said they also talked about advertising ways to get help before an appointment, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Samaritans suicide prevention hotline.

“In the same way [Emerson] tried advertising sexual assault resources, I think the same could be done with mental health resources,” Cunningham said, “Because right now, students don’t feel like they have resources besides that appointment.”

Cunningham said she and Ludman discussed adding new staff members and extending the counseling center hours, and whether those changes would be affordable. Cunningham said that she advocated for more staff to increase the capacity for helping students.

Harrison told the Beacon that the counseling center currently has five full-time staff members, two part-time staff members, and four interns, and is one employee short. At a Student Government Association meeting on Tuesday, Harrison said three staff members are on maternity leave, and two staff psychologists recently began jobs at private practices, but the center will become fully staffed again in January.

“I personally feel that adding more staff would do more good than extending hours,” Cunningham said. “I don’t think the real problem is that students can’t make it to their appointment because it’s during nine to five.”

In the SGA meeting, Harrison also talked about better publicizing the center’s group therapy programs, including its grief group, twelve-step program for remaining sober, and relaxation group.

Cunningham also organized an event for Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. in Walker 417, which, according to its Facebook event page, is meant for students to share their stories and ideas about the counseling center with Harrison. Cunningham said that the ground rules are to “be kind, be honest, be constructive.”

“I’m trying to get students to care enough to raise their voices on campus,” Cunningham said. “Because without those testimonies, the fact of the matter is, administration isn’t going to believe me.”