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The open secret of the University Counseling Center

| Wednesday, April 13, 2022

I have a unique perspective on how this lovely University of ours has changed over time. You see, I got to be an undergraduate twice, with about a decade separating the experiences. Even though I was a Philosophy major back in ‘08, I was pretty well known amongst friends as an amateur therapist. I was always happy to listen to anyone, and I managed to help some people. And, wounded healer that I tried to be, I’d often ask for their help in return. I gave out a lot of cries for help in those days, and talked to a lot of people. Easily dozens. But none of them even knew to suggest the University Counseling Center (UCC)  to me, before it was too late and I needed to go on medical leave.

I only have one memory of the UCC from back then. I had to get some paperwork filled out for the leave. My intake was with someone who seemed to be in training. As the saying goes, we don’t remember what people say, we remember how they make us feel. I remember that person making me feel like they were interested in the hot gossip surrounding why I had become so depressed; I didn’t feel like they were quite so interested in helping me solve my problems.
But seasons change, and I was thrilled to come back a decade later. 2019 was the best year of my life. To ease the transition from full time work to student, I went to the UCC a few times. I didn’t need much help by then but appreciated the support anyway.

I also made a point to listen to my fellow students’ perspectives on the UCC. Now a Psychology major, the UCC’s effectiveness was important to me. Unfortunately, most didn’t have a high opinion of it. At least people knew about the resource, unlike when I was a sophomore. But most said it hadn’t helped. And those I met most in need of therapy had tried it with no success. It’s important to be fair when offering a critique. The UCC has a monumental task. Notre Dame has 8,000 undergraduates. The UCC isn’t staffed for long term care. It’s an open secret that the UCC has a policy of seeing students for only a few sessions. The focus is on helping those who only need brief assistance, and directing those with deeper problems off campus. The UCC doesn’t have an enormous staff and has to triage its resources appropriately.

But if we’re going to have empathy for the UCC’s position, I think it’s even more important to empathize with our struggling students.

Imagine you’ve finally made it, a Golden Dome First-year. And you’re struggling. You’ve never gotten therapy before, and maybe your parents aren’t over the stigma. But you finally get up the courage to go to the UCC.

Now, the therapist knows they only get to see you a few times. That puts up a wall. I don’t care whether the counselor is aware of it or not: therapists who can only see a patient a few times put up a wall. Certain topics and traumas shouldn’t be covered if they can’t receive appropriate care. This delicacy guarantees the intimacy of therapy has been violated.

Carl Rogers was an amazing teacher to the discipline, and we forget his wisdom at our peril: the relationship between therapist and patient is paramount. It is the cornerstone of any progress being achieved, ever. And our UCC’s resources and policy guarantee that relationship is crippled. Pretending this isn’t a danger is shortsighted and reckless.

So your first experience with therapy is with someone shooing you along. A bad vibe like that is enough to scare off many already hesitant to seek therapy. And if you return, they give you a referral.

Off campus.

Let me repeat: off campus.

Now, let me clue in the administration to something: the world off campus essentially does not exist to Notre Dame students.

Oh, we’ll go to house parties off campus. We might walk over to Eddy Street Commons. If you’re a senior with a car, there’s a chance you’ll do some things off campus. But a first-year? I was a townie as a first-year, and I never once went off campus while the sun was shining.

To most students, resources off campus essentially don’t exist. How are you going to go to an appointment at 3 p.m. every Tuesday when you don’t have a car? And you have to interrupt your class schedule? And Zoom? Assuming telehealth continues post pandemic, how many first-years can guarantee an hour in their dorm all alone, especially living in a quad? Or shall we ask them to divulge their deepest fears in a study room, hoping they don’t get interrupted?

Worse yet, off campus therapy means insurance is involved. Which means parents are involved. So you’ll have to tell mom and dad their Golden Child is having serious problems. But why would someone with anxiety be anxious over that?

And anyway, the UCC didn’t help you, why would the off-campus therapist be any different?

Notre Dame likely hopes that rectors, RAs and ARs can fill the gap. But none of those people have psychological training, and they cannot provide the anonymous presence that psychological care absolutely requires.

They certainly didn’t do me any good. Do I get my eight years back?

Cavanaugh Hannan

class of 2020

March 29

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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