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UCC meets challenges of students

Janice Flynn | Monday, September 27, 2004

Across the country, college students are reporting – with greater frequency – more serious mental health concerns, creating a critical challenge for college counseling centers. At Notre Dame, students and faculty say these challenges have been met by the University Counseling Center over this past year.

Last year, the center saw 815 students, roughly 8 percent of the student body. Over 90 percent received individual counseling, while the remainder participated in group counseling.

In addition, about 97 percent of cases are kept within the the UCC for treatment, which is directed by Susan Steibe-Pasalich.

Such a high retention rate contradicts the common stereotype that college counseling centers are not equipped to handle serious cases.

“Counseling centers at colleges have never been conceived as centers like private practices,” said Ava Preacher, the victim’s resource person for sexual assault and assistant dean in the College of Arts and Letters. “[They] traditionally have been where students deal with smaller, adjustment problems. In the last few years as diagnoses have gotten more sophisticated, the UCC has really been called on to do a different kind of work than they had been conceived to do.”

Heather Rakoczy, rector of Pangborn Hall, said this impression does exist among students that she has dealt with.

“What I typically hear is one of two things,” Rakoczy said. “One, ‘My problem is so serious that a University Center would not be as qualified to help me as a private practice would,’ or two, ‘My problem is not serious enough.'”

Preacher and Rakoczy belong to a group of people who have developed relationships with the UCC and have found a high level of professionalism and expertise there, particularly since Steibe-Pasalich took over as the center’s director in July 2003.

“[Students] need to hear unequivocally that I think our counseling center is one of the best in the country,” said Sister Mary Ann Mueninghoff, rector of Pasquerilla East Hall. “They’re professional. … [Steibe-Pasalich] is hands-on and will just do anything for the residential community.”

Erica Bove, student for the group A Life Uncommon, said she was aware of poor advice that had been given to some members several years ago by interns at the UCC, but that above all, the center has been a tremendous asset for students struggling with a disorder, especially eating specialist Valerie Staples.

“We highly recommend the Counseling Center, especially [Staples],” Bove said.

“She’s wonderful, she’s just a professional. She just has a way to connect to each individual.”

Many, particularly University staff, have noticed the UCC has improved in recent years. Several years ago, students encountered long waiting lines before being seen on a regular basis, exacerbating the difficulty of trying to convince them to seek help at the UCC.

“I would work with a student for weeks, and finally get them to go to the Counseling Center,” Rakoczy said. “But in the past that lag time between the assessment interview and when they were matched up with a counselor sometimes was weeks, sometimes was months.”

To avoid that situation, the staff now meets twice weekly to discuss student intake. Students are paired with one of the center’s 12 psychologists, based on availability and specialization. Furthermore, an on-call crisis counselor is available every day for students who need immediate assistance, a policy that has been in place for many years.

The UCC also has a 24-hour emergency service. At any time, an on-call therapist will return a message within 30 minutes, a service that rectors say is reassuring.

“A number of years ago I had an attempted suicide,” Rakoczy said. “[The counselor on-call] immediately called me back and talked me through what to do … I was terrified. Afterwards I was just so grateful because I had never dealt with that kind of thing before.”

Outside referrals are a rarity, according to the UCC. However, if the staff determines that a student needs more specialized services or more intense counseling than once a week sessions, the UCC will contact agencies in either local area or in the student’s home community.

The center remains in contact with the outside treatment facility and often gives follow-up care upon completion. After treatment is complete, they assist with readmission by vouching to the Office of Student Affairs on the student’s behalf.

On the other end of the spectrum, the UCC is also equipped to address less serious student difficulties, a detail that is often overshadowed by the severe problems.

“We do lots of counseling for students with just normal developmental problems,” Steibe-Pasalich said. “But [these issues] do have real psychological components that can be addressed.”

Students and staff say the UCC has been very progressive and proactive. In recent years, it has implemented a system for handling sexual assault and a grief support group. The center has also supported the new Gender Relations Center.

Long-term plans include hosting a national eating disorder conference next spring, and in May 2005 the UCC will temporarily move to the old post-office facility while their current building is renovated.

Psychologists at the center are heartened by the increased openness to psychological services, both across the country and among Notre Dame students.

“Amazingly, [Notre Dame students] are almost always self-referred,” Steibe-Pasalich said. “Most students come in on their own accord.”

Rita Donley, assistant director of the center, echoes this sentiment.

“Unlike other offices on campus, you don’t want to have to visit the [UCC], and I get that,” Donley said. “Where I feel most satisfied is in the number of self-referrals … It also feels good to me that one Notre Dame student will say to another ‘Look, I felt better after this … and I think you would too.'”