Students, staff reflect on accessibility of mental health resources at Saint Mary’s
Gina Twardosz | Tuesday, November 5, 2019
Editor’s Note: This is the first article in an investigative series on the accessibility and effectiveness of mental health resources available within the tri-campus community.
On Oct. 21, Saint Mary’s announced via email that Health and Counseling Center director Elizabeth “Izzy” Fourman would resign in order to take on a position at Notre Dame. While the College has detailed a plan for the Center in the interim between hiring a full-time replacement, many students still feel uncertain about many health and wellness resources on Saint Mary’s campus.
Seniors Grace Erving and Jillian Dani are enrolled in the social work courses Research Methods and Statistical Concepts I and II. Through these classes, they have advocated for increased accessibility of mental health resources on campus through a study of online mental health resources and whether those can supplement student mental health needs.
Dani said mental health is often stigmatized, which prevents those who suffer from issues with their mental health to feel as though they are able to reach out and seek the resources they so desperately need.
“Mental health seems to be stigmatized and tends to lack the proper attention really needed to help individuals,” Dani said. “We felt that even though there are resources available on campus, the idea of there being more options and more flexibility could benefit the students of Saint Mary’s.”
In 2019, the College launched “[email protected]’s,” a digital health and wellness provider that can provide students with resources which can help supplement counselor visits. Students can access the program from anywhere with internet access.
Erving has looked into the [email protected]’s program in order to assess its potential impact on Saint Mary’s students. She said she found the program to be helpful in providing students with personal resources.
“When Jill and I researched online mental health resources, we did find that personal research can be a form of strength for those experiencing mental distress,” Erving said. “So, I would categorize [email protected]’s as a type of program which can connect students to personal resources, but does not provide concrete mental health intervention.”
The program works by surveying students and connecting them with specific articles that can help them better navigate the plethora of resources available online, Erving said.
“They offer three or four ‘reality checks’ where you can go through and answer questions in a survey to get a feel for areas where you’re thriving or struggling in life,” she said. “Once you complete the reality checks, the program will offer you articles and connection to resources that can further be of use.”
Erving said she feels that [email protected]’s is a “step in the right direction,” but feels that the College requires “a leap in the right direction,” not a step.
“Mental health is often not prioritized until it’s too late, and having only three counselors available for a school of 1,600 students is unacceptable given the need,” she said. “Saint Mary’s trumpets having small class sizes … so in what way is a 533:1 counselor [to student] ratio acceptable?”
Vice president for student affairs Karen Johnson said in an email that the College, which authorizes the hiring for the Health and Counseling Center, has no plans to hire extra counselors, even though, as Erving stated, the Center employs only three counselors who each conduct 45 to 50 minutes counseling sessions with students.
In September, the Observer interviewed Fourman on the state of the Health and Counseling Center. Fourman said in an email that, inevitably, students will often wait up to a few weeks to see a counselor.
“Between high utilization and class schedules, it often takes a couple weeks to get in with a counselor,” Fourman said.
Johnson said the College has “made adjustments” to make the waiting period between appointments shorter. She said students generally wait 10 days after making an appointment to see a counselor, which is “shorter than the average on a college campus of our size.”
Saint Mary’s employs more counselors per 1,000 students than the average college, Fourman said, but female students tend to have a higher need for counselors.
“The national average tends to be about one counselor per 1,000 students,” she said. “We have three for 1,500; however, you have to take into account that we are all female and our demographic tends to utilize [counselors] at a higher rate.”
Often, Fourman said, sessions are scheduled around the urgency of student need.
“If someone is in urgent need of a counseling appointment, they need to make us aware so we can work them in sooner,” she said. “That said, we are not a crisis center, and if someone is truly in crisis, they need to call 911 or go to the emergency room.”
Fourman said there is a session limit of eight counseling sessions per semester for students, but the Health and Counseling Center will make exceptions only if the student has an increased need for more visits.
Of the counselors, Fourman said they are a confidential resource, which means information shared with the counselors is protected by federal and state laws and cannot be shared without permission.
While the counselors can be a beneficial resource for students, Fourman said there are certain circumstances in which students would be recommended to see an off-campus healthcare provider.
“There are a few situations where students would be better served by an off-campus provider,” she said, “whether for specialty care — severe eating disorders, addiction specialists — or if we simply cannot accommodate a need for more frequent or higher acuity sessions.”
Fourman said she recommends students seek out counseling services early, before they are in crisis.
“Don’t wait until you are in crisis to seek support,” she said. “If you feel like life is getting out of control, reach out.”
All in all, Erving and Dani hope their study will help bring positive and tangible change to the College’s campus.
“Jill and I really hope that at the end of this study we can hand our work to the administration, showing them concrete needs of students and what they can do to fix it,” Erving said.
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