Local universities adjust counseling center services to meet increased demand

JMU’s counseling center has seen a 36 percent increase in the demand for its services from this time last year.

By: Graham Schiltz, Contributor

College students at Harrisonburg’s universities are increasingly seeking out help from counseling centers — part of a nationwide trend of colleges trying to keep up with mental health issues among this generation of students. That has forced JMU and EMU’s counseling centers to get creative in order to serve every student that comes through their doors.

JMU, despite increasing the size of their counseling staff, is still struggling to accommodate the growing number of students seeking mental health services. The counseling center designates staff to work with some students one-on-one, some counselors to lead group sessions and some to be available for “walk-ins” — students who come to the counseling center without an appointment between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

The center added three staff members this fall, which amounted to an 18 percent increase in the staff after the addition of another case manager and two crisis/intake counselors, whose main responsibility is working with walk-in appointments. But the center has seen a 36 percent increase in demand from this time last year. 

In fact, David Onestak, director of JMU’s counseling center, said that for every one percent the university grows, the demand for services grows by 5 percent – as is happening in colleges throughout the U.S.

That’s part of a national trend of ever-growing need for counseling on campuses over the last decade. About 45 percent of college students in a nationwide survey reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function” in the last 12 months, according to a study released this spring by the American College Health Association. 

About 65 percent reported feeling overwhelming anxiety. Students’ mental health and subsequent treatment can be directly linked to their academic achievements — students are 14% less likely to return for their next year of college when placed on a waiting list for counseling services, and 69% of students report that counseling improved their academic performance, according to the International Accreditation of Counseling Services.

To try to accommodate the increase in demand for counseling services each year, the counseling center switched in 2017 from scheduling appointments to the walk-in model. Now students can come in anytime between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, for an approximately 30-minute assessment.

From there, the student is directed down one of several paths. The center’s goal is to provide a service as soon as possible, usually within two weeks, though that time span has grown this year. 

Onestak said about two-thirds of students are sent to in-house individual counseling. The rest are sent to JMU’s group counseling programs, or to outside community resources that have counselors hand-picked by JMU to best fit the students’ needs. 

But this year, even with the new three staff members, the counseling center has had to strategically deploy its resources. Starting Oct. 7, the center announced it would no longer schedule one-on-one appointments for students with challenges for which there are group sessions available. The center regularly runs group therapy for addressing grief, sexual assault and eating disorders. In the past, a student struggling with an eating disorder might have refused a referral to one of the group sessions tailored to students with eating disorders in favor of seeing a counselor one-on-one. 

Now, holding out for individual counseling won’t be an option for those students because the one-on-one counseling services are needed for an increasing number of students with severe mental health issues. 

Junior psychology major Gracie Kennedy came in for a walk-in appointment in spring 2019 to seek services after being the victim of sexual assault. Even though she could only see her counselor four or five times before the semester ended, she said she was pleased with how the center handled her needs.

“They gave me information about stuff outside the counseling center, but they still helped me as much as they could,” Kennedy said. “At my last school, [my counselor] was not very good. She just threw phone numbers at me.”

If Kennedy had come to the center now, she might not have had the opportunity for one-on-one services she had in the spring. And that individual treatment can address problems that extend beyond the reason a student initially went to the counseling center.

Onestak said the shift away from individual sessions is a consequence of devoting so much staff time to triaging walk-in clients.

“When you prioritize access, you move a lot of resources to the front of things so students can get in quickly and be assessed, and we can make sure that people are safe and that they’re getting appropriate referrals. When you prioritize access, then those resources aren’t available for individual counseling appointments, groups, things like that,” Onestak said.

For the staff of 15 in JMU’s counseling center, the combination of the approach to allow for more flexibility and the ever-swelling need for their services has forced them to make the difficult choice of paring back individual counseling services. 

“Now we’re seeing the point in which the current system, the walk-in model, is not the challenge,” Onestak said. “The challenge is what do we do with these students after the walk-in.”

Eastern Mennonite University has faced the same problems as JMU. The initial wait times in 2016 sometimes stretched to be more than a month. 

To address this, EMU took advantage of its graduate psychology program. Half of EMU’s counseling hours are provided by four graduate student interns for the full year, with an additional two practicum graduate students in the spring — enough to see as many as 70 students a week. The other half of all counseling hours are provided by the interim director, Stewart Nafziger.

Students at EMU can see a counselor six to eight times over a semester or school year. That compares to three to five times within one semester at JMU. 

While the graduate interns are not licensed professionals, feedback from their student client has been generally positive.

“[Students] talk about how much they advocate for their other classmates to seek out an experience like this because it’s been really helpful to them and their learning and growth,” EMU’s former Director of Counseling Services Tempest Anderson said. “We enjoy being able to provide that resource.”

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