As the counseling center improves services, students complain that waits are still too long

Claire Borecki

Due to the sensitivity of the subject, names have been changed.

When first-year Colby student Sally went to make her first appointment at the counseling center, it was long overdue. Issues were mounting, and she was feeling overwhelmed. “I actively started pursuing counseling later than I should have,” she said. It took two weeks for her initial appointment with a counselor who was not a good fit. When she tried to switch, she was told the wait was three and a half weeks. “I was told once I’m ‘in the system,’ it will be easier for me to make weekly appointments. But I’m not sure that’s even true right now.”

The strain on Colby’s counseling center is not simply a product of the “Colby bubble.” Over the past ten years, demand for counseling services has increased from 30–40% percent nationwide, while enrollment has only increased 5 percent.

Currently, campuses around the country face an unprecedented demand for counseling services. Between 2009 and 2015, the number of students visiting counseling centers increased by about 30 percent on average, and students seeking help are increasingly likely to have attempted suicide or engaged in self-harm. Universities have increased resources devoted to rapid-access services — including walk-in appointments and crisis treatment — since 2010 in response to rising demand. But long-term treatment services, including recurring appointments and specialized counseling, decreased on average during that time period.

This new demand for mental health services reflects a number of positive trends — breaking down of stigmas, more diverse student bodies, and a greater access to college. However, it also puts colleges in a difficult place.

“This past year alone, we’ve had a larger growth in demand that any year I have experienced,” Director Eric Johnson said. In the past four years, Colby’s services have reached students at an increase of 17 percent, with a 25 percent increase in individual sessions. In the past year, students served is up 15 percent so far, with a 27 percent increase in the number of individual sessions. They’ve also seen an increase in after-hours, to 5.6 serve, crisis service and groups. This increase included new administrative staff to manage scheduling, something counselors had previously done on their own time. The center’s space was renovated in order to serve more students and staff. As demand for services has increased in the past year, average wait times have gone up from 4.3 to 4.8 days for an initial appointment.

This 4.8 day wait does not currently line up with many student experiences, which can be correlated with the time of year. Mid-second semester, as more students begin seeking counseling along with longer-term patients, counselors’ schedules begin to fill. The result are waits that seem to hover around two weeks­­­­ — or even longer.

“I saw someone for an initial appointment that went really well, but she told me she was so busy this time of year that she didn’t have openings for another month,” first-year Allie said.

When senior Allison went to request counseling her sophomore year, her counselor was not a good match. “I went to talk about my anxiety and actually just had an anxiety attack from the session,” she said. Two years later, Allison returned to the center and found a good match, but continues struggling to make appointments even as a regular patient. “Sometimes I see her every week, and I want to, but it’s been three weeks now,” she said. “A lot can happen in three weeks.”

When students call to make appointments, the center asks if they are in danger of hurting themselves or others; if the answer is no, students at this time of year are generally relegated to long wait times. Johnson spoke of a mid-level of urgency, in that if students expressed that their needs were urgent (but they were not necessarily in danger) there would be an effort to see them sooner. However, students referred to for this article have expressed that this distinction of urgency is unclear.

“I asked if there was any way I could be seen sooner,” Sally said, a first-year who reached out to counseling in February. She was told that unless she was in danger of hurting herself or others, her wait would be two weeks.

2018 is not a new year for student concerns. During the annual State of the College address in the 2016–2017 year, current senior Katie asked President Greene a question. “I cited the fact that students in need of counseling, specifically first time visitors to the center, are often told they have to wait several weeks for an opening. Such a response can result in many things, such as someone who is already struggling can feel even less valued,” Katie said. “Students feeling obligated to seek help outside of Colby, which is burdensome both financially and logistically. President Greene responded that we were, in fact, not ‘understaffed’. ”

It’s clear (regardless of whether the counseling center is understaffed or not) that serious effort has been put in to improve the quality and quantity of services from the center in years of Director Johnson’s tenure. But students continue to feel frustration.

“No student who is struggling and has asked for help should ever be turned away or told they have to wait weeks for an appointment,” Katie. The center acknowledges the problem, but sees another side.

“Not every student walks away feeling satisfied with their experience, whether it is because of waiting, counselor match or other concerns. We truly regret when this is the case and work to address concerns where we can,” Johnson said. “We also know, and what doesn’t get written about, is that the help and support students receive daily in counseling can have a profoundly positive impact and both change and even save lives. I guess I see that as the balance, the mark we strive for, but don’t always hit.”