Univ. hosts forum on mental health at Brandeis

March 2, 2018

Ensuring the Brandeis Counseling Center (BCC) has adequate resources to meet student need and improving communication between the center and students were two major points of discussion at an open forum on campus mental health, hosted in the Gosman Napoli Room on Thursday, March 1.

A crowd of around 30, about two-thirds of which were students, engaged in discussion with a panel comprised of Sheryl Sousa, the Vice President of Student Affairs, the BCC’s director, Joy von Steiger and other employees from the counseling center. Students and staff posed questions about BCC staffing, policy and outreach.

Audience members cited frustration and loss of trust in the BCC on campus, stemming in part from complications last semester when wait times for a brief assessment (or intake appointment) had stretched to four weeks. Students also expressed concern about the BCC being unable to accomodate the volume of students seeking treatment, and referring some to group therapy or off-campus services. Several counselors had left the BCC over the summer, but the center hired two new part-time counselors and three “temps” which reduced brief assessment wait time to one week by mid-October.

At the forum, multiple participants asked about how the BCC decides whether a student will receive one-on-one or group therapy. The BCC has expanded its group options from four to 19 in the past year.

Von Steiger explained how they evaluate each student’s intake survey to “get a sense of what is it that they’re struggling with, what is it that they want to focus on,” and determine the best treatment option. She explained there are certain areas where group therapy is particularly helpful, nothing that research shows it is effective in treating feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression in a college setting. Von Steiger stressed these decisions are based on each student’s “unique circumstances,” and cautioned that “what a student wants may not be what they need, from our [the BCC’s] perspective.”

“Embedded in the question is the underlying idea that maybe one is better than the other,” said Rachael Pucillo, the eating disorder specialist and group therapy coordinator at the BCC. “But it’s just not so black and white,” she continued, suggesting there may need to be a “cultural shift” in the way we educate about group therapy.

Von Steiger acknowledged that group can be overwhelming for some students and said if someone is worried this treatment is not for them, the BCC will work to “get [them] ready” for group or propose short-term one-on-one counseling.

A major area of focus at the forum was what attendees described as a lack of communication between the BCC and the student body. Students noted much of the information they receive about the BCC comes via word of mouth, as opposed to official communications from the center about policy changes or new programs.

Anne Kat Alexander ’18 explained that as a result, the information circulating is often stories about friends who struggled to receive individual therapy and felt pushed into group, as opposed to hearing how the panelists articulated the treatment options. “That messaging, I feel, needs to be more directly communicated to students,” she said.

Frankie Marchan ’19, who is involved with Active Minds, also said there should be more information on the BCC website, so if students find they need to advocate for more treatment or decide to seek services off-campus, they can learn about the benefits of different treatments.

Von Steiger acknowledged, throughout the forum, that the center could improve their communication efforts. She asked for student feedback on ways to get information to students.

Throughout the forum, attendees explored ways the BCC could better publicize information. Alexander said the university is effectively communicating about many other issues via campus-wide emails and social media, citing the active shooter training set for March 21. She also suggested the BCC could have a newsletter with information on new group options or new research they’re looking at. Other participants suggested having CAs or Area Coordinators reach out to their residents or posting signs in bathroom stalls similar to the “Get Help Now” posters (which provide information on sexual assault support services).

The forum also explored the stigmatization of mental health and how it can discourage people from seeking treatment. Student Union Vice President Hannah Brown ’19 said increased communication could help address this issue. Students hear about the BCC officially during Orientation, she said, but “more communication could help students realize, ‘this really is an option for me.’”

At the forum, von Steiger announced a new program the university is piloting called “embedded therapists.” Through the program, therapists hold drop-in hours in locations around campus, including the athletics center and the Intercultural Center, North Quad and the Village. Students do not need to make an appointment or fill out the intake form to visit these counselors, and they can meet with the same person three times before likely being referred to the BCC, said von Steiger.

The audience expressed widespread support for this program, but called it a prime example of the communication gap as no present students were aware of its existence. The Department of Community Living is working on a communication about this program in residence halls, according to one Area Coordinator.

With the university’s next budget cycle approaching, the BCC’s “central ask” is for additional staff, according to Sousa. Last semester, they were able to lobby for additional positions, said Sousa who described von Steiger as “relentless, persistent and unyielding,” in pursuing resources for the BCC. Over the course of this academic year, the center has hired four new half-time counselors, including one at the beginning of this semester.

The group also discussed ways to encourage international students to seek mental health services. International students are less likely to seek out counseling services, according to Von Steiger, and for years, the center has struggled to hire additional counselors who speak Mandarin and Cantonese. An international student in the audience encouraged the BCC to be aware of the cultural differences that affect international students seeking services.

BCC staff are in the process of forming a student advisory committee to explore campus mental health policies. At the forum, von Steiger encouraged any students interested in serving on the committee to reach out to her.

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