Brandeis Counseling Center sees increase in student use, students seeking help for anxiety and depression

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November 8, 2019

Recent trends in the increased utilization of the Brandeis Counseling Center (BCC) has BCC Director Dr. Joy von Steiger concerned with the university’s ability to accommodate the growing number of students seeking counseling. Von Steiger addressed this growing issue and provided suggestions for how faculty can help aid students in a Nov. 1 Faculty Senate meeting. 

In the last academic year alone, there was a dramatic increase in students seen by the clinic for a first-time appointment—which the counseling center refers to as an assessment, von Steiger said. There were an additional 315 students given assessments from the previous year, which are students who generally wish to seek ongoing care from the counseling center. 

This semester, the majority of students sought help for moderate to extreme anxiety or moderate to extreme depression.

The counseling center also sees students who come in for urgent care, who may not necessarily be included in that statistic of students seeking assessments. Overall, the number of students being seen by the counseling center increased by 8.4 percent from the previous academic year. 

Last year, the counseling center also experienced a 120 percent increase in hospitalizations of students as compared to the year before, along with an 84 percent increase in initial assessments and a 47 percent increase in total appointments, according to a previous Hoot article.

This pattern has continued into this semester, von Steiger said. “We have more kids coming in that we call high risk. These are kids who are talking about being actively suicidal or have behaviors which might be putting them at risk,” she said. With an increase in high-risk patients, a fair amount of the clinic’s resources are being used for them specifically. According to von Steiger, this intensified treatment is using up a majority of the counseling center’s input. 

“Higher education is a pressure cooker environment,” von Steiger said, “That sense that there’s too much to do, there’s too little time, you have to be busy all the time, you have to have two majors, you have to be president of four clubs. That’s kind of the ethos here at Brandeis.”

According to von Steiger, the counseling center isn’t equipped with a large enough staff to handle this increased demand. In addition to the director and associate director, there are 17 staff therapists, two staff psychiatrists and four community therapists, according to the BCC’s university webpage

Other local colleges have also experienced increased demand, like Boston College, which experienced a 25 percent increase in student demand for counseling services in 2016—causing the university to hire two new full-time staff members—according to a previous Hoot article. Boston College also expanded its counseling services to its Newton campus this past spring, according to The Heights. Boston University also increased its counseling staff in 2017, according to a 2017 Daily Free Press article.

When looking at data from the counseling center, von Steiger said, “The reason why this is important, is that what we find is when we look at all our data… folks with marginalized identities are much more likely to endorse higher symptoms [of depression and anxiety].”

Von Steiger also provided a breakdown of what students coming into the counseling center were seeking help for this semester. The largest percentage of students, 58 percent, are seeking counseling for moderate to extreme anxiety. The second largest percentage of students, 46 percent, are seeking help for moderate to extreme depression. These symptoms are not mutually exclusive, and there is some overlap in the categories, von Steiger said. 

Research shows that the utilization of counseling centers across the country is outpacing the rate of enrollment by 5 times, said von Steiger. From this data, von Steiger said the university must therefore plan to have a higher number of students seeking counseling.

“We have to assume that we are going to have more and more students each year showing up wanting care and we are going to have to assume that is going to grow at a high rate,” von Steiger said. 

With this in mind, von Steiger brought up her “Calls to Action” to the faculty for what they could do to help manage this crisis. “Everybody in our community should start thinking about what it is they can do in their corner of the world to enhance a sense of wellbeing—both for themselves and their students,” said von Steiger. 

Her ideas included making it mandatory for professors to provide a list of mental health resources on their syllabus to encourage wellbeing in the curriculum, as well as mandatory training for faculty at a mental health workshop. 

This idea was actually implemented a couple of years earlier, said von Steiger, when one member of each department went to the training and then reported back what they learned to the rest of their division. The overall feedback was very positive, according to von Steiger, and they hope to reimplement this style of training. Other suggestions that were encouraged, but not mandatory, suggested that professors start class with a mindful moment, and attend a “wellbeing in the classroom” workshop.

Raymond Ou, vice provost of student affairs, spoke on the topic as well, calling for a change in the university’s provision of care. In the coming weeks, there will be a faculty staff and student advisory group to help adjust the current models of care for the counseling center, said Ou. The university may change its counseling model to mimic those of other institutions that set session limits or create a biweekly model for therapy treatment. Neither of these models are set in stone, Ou said, though the university is looking at alternative models of care given the limited number of resources Brandeis has. 

Faculty, like Nina Kammerer from The Heller School for Social Policy and Management, advocated for student groups that could meet and meditate. This would not be for students who are necessarily depressed, said Kammerer, but for support and optimism to give students a sense of belonging that may help combat anxiety. Other professors suggested bringing nature into the lives of students, citing recent studies between the correlation of nature and optimal mental health. 

Jennifer Cleary (THA), senior lecturer in theater arts, spoke of potential collaboration with faculty and the counseling center to better the classroom environment for students and promote wellbeing. Cleary also suggested a faculty survey to measure what they are doing in their classes to support mental wellbeing and to discuss the emotional labor of some faculty on campus that students gravitate toward.

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