In a sign of dedication to student mental health, the Brandeis Psychological Counseling Center (PCC) will continue to provide every student with 12 free individual therapy sessions, as well as over 20 group therapy options, an increase from the 12 group therapy options available last year.
The student demand for counseling at the PCC has increased six to 12 percent each year for the past seven years, said Dr. Michael LaFarr, executive director of health and wellness, in an interview with The Brandeis Hoot.
Because of the continuous increase in student usage of the PCC, LaFarr and other staff members have recently begun exploring options to assure mental health treatment remains available to all students.
In late August during an Orientation Leader and Community Advisor training session, Dr. Joy von Steiger, PCC senior associate director and clinical director, discouraged student leaders from using language such as “12 free therapy sessions,” as questions had arisen about whether or not this would be an option in the academic year 2016-2017.
In her presentation to the student leaders, von Steiger announced the PCC was considering billing student insurance for psychotherapy sessions beginning with the first time a student sees a PCC therapist.
This raised many immediate concerns for student leaders. Questions were asked regarding anonymity within the health insurance documentation, the increase in wait time for therapy because of insurance paperwork and comfort in always having “12 free sessions.”
Further, students were concerned about language von Steiger used that implied, in the case of limited therapists due to high demand, students would be sent to group therapy as an alternative to individual therapy if their problems were not severe enough.
“My biggest issue with the presentation was their implication that they were going to be interviewing people to gauge whether or not they ‘deserve’ free sessions, or whether they aren’t mentally ill enough, or whether they aren’t upset enough or distressed in any way to merit getting a one-on-one session, or getting 12 one-on-one sessions. That they were going to try to judge someone’s level of distress,” said Gabby Lamm ’17, and a Community Advisor present at the meeting.
In his interview with The Hoot, LaFarr made it clear that under no circumstance would a student be denied individual therapy. “People are coming to us for a reason,” said LaFarr. “We will give our professional opinion and say, ‘We really think group therapy would be helpful for you in this way,’ but it wouldn’t be you have group therapy or nothing.”
With the increased student usage of the PCC, there has been pressure on LaFarr and staff to continue to provide resources to fill all student needs. Last summer, two new psychologists were hired to reach more of the student body.
“We were able to add a sexual assault specialist, and we were able to add a specialist to serve our international populations,” said LaFarr. “Specifically we hired a therapist fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin.”
To help fund more programming for students desiring mental health treatment, LaFarr is working with a PCC advisory group, comprised entirely of Brandeis students, to identify other options for funding PCC staff. One option, introduced by van Steiger at the meeting with student leaders, mentioned the potential plan to bill insurance companies starting with a student’s first visit to the PCC.
While von Steiger was correct in that the PCC is considering billing insurance earlier in the therapy process, no policy has actually been changed.
“We will bill for psychotherapy after the 12th session, and psychiatry, as has been for the last decade, we bill from the beginning,” says LaFarr. “There have been no policy changes in terms of number and limitations of sessions.”
Currently, the PCC offers students 12 free psychotherapy sessions per semester. This means, students may walk into the PCC and schedule an appointment completely free of cost.
While therapy remains free of cost for students after 12 sessions, the PCC begins to bill student insurance. Brandeis subsidizes the co-pay and/or deductible, so while the insurance company and Brandeis University will pay, the therapy sessions remain free for students.
Over the course of the next year, LaFarr hopes to work more closely with the PCC advisory group to figure out “how to continue to meet the needs of Brandeis students.”
The role of the group, open to all Brandeis students interested in being involved in the PCC, is to help the PCC staff understand what the student body needs, mental health trends on campus and to create and adjust policies, practices and procedures of the center said LaFarr.
As of now, no policy changes have been made to the PCC. LaFarr invites any students interested in being involved with future changes to contact von Steiger and join the PCC advisory group. “This is really the students’ center,” said LaFarr. “We are only the guardians of the center to be sure we are doing what you need.”