A “hectic and hard” freshman year was taking its toll on Lindsay Behrendt.
Anxiety and depression — and “pretty severe forms” at that — were almost inevitable given her family history. Her grandparents, parents, sister and aunts had all dealt with mental illness in the past. Since seventh grade, Behrendt had been to therapy on and off, had been prescribed medication and, in the fall of 2016, came to Ohio University to study women’s, gender and sexuality studies.
As her second semester rolled around, however, Behrendt couldn’t help but feel the overwhelming weight of schoolwork and the new environment pressing on her mind and taking a toll on her mental health. In February, she walked onto the third floor of Hudson Health Center, where she filled out paperwork and was admitted to a drop-in session at Counseling and Psychological Services.
After spending a half-hour speaking with a counselor about questions she had answered on the survey, Behrendt was told someone would be in touch via email to discuss setting up regular appointments.
That email never arrived.
“I mean, I do understand that I went a little bit late,” Behrendt said. “I was just too anxious to go. Sometimes I get really anxious about asking for help. Sometimes my mind tells me I don’t deserve it.”
With a busy schedule and finals looming around the corner, Behrendt said she doesn’t have the time to sort out the specifics with CPS. Instead, she’s made the decision to wait it out — at least until she can get help back home, near Cleveland, over summer vacation.
Behrendt isn’t alone. In fact, more students than ever before are seeking out psychological care at OU. From fall semester 2014 to fall semester 2016, CPS saw a 47.3 percent increase in students seeking counseling.
But a low counselor retention, a pressing need for space and wait times stretching for weeks have left many students with few options for mental health care. It’s a dangerous issue for a university to have — and one that has OU administrators scrambling for answers.
It was apparent from the start: Vice President for Student Affairs Jason Pina had his work cut out for him.
“Right from the beginning of my interview process, it was always something at the top of my mind,” Pina said. “Coming in new in June, my initial focus is housing, food and wellness. And these are the basic needs. If we can’t make sure we’re addressing these in every way that we can, then students aren’t able to do their best academic work. And that’s essentially why we’re all here.”
Located on the third floor of Hudson Health Center with two additional offices downstairs, CPS is in need of a new location to accommodate the growing need for mental health services, Pina said.
“They’re already on top of each other,” he said. “We have a post-doctoral student or a graduate student and some of our newer counselors are sharing spaces, so even though we may have staffing to see three students simultaneously, there might be only one office to see that student.”
Although Pina said the university cannot afford to give CPS its own building, the arrival of new staff members this coming summer has presented the university with an “immediate” need for additional space. Pina and his office are working with University Planner Shawna Bolin to find an appropriate location to house CPS.
“From where I stand, this is a good problem to have,” Pina said. “We’re going to grow the staff, which in turn will have more hours available for the students, and we’ll be able to affect more change on campus and improve our campus.”
For Torri Raines, a first-year graduate student studying applied linguistics, annual visits to CPS have become part of her routine — a sort of “mental maintenance,” as she puts it.
Like Behrendt, Raines lives with chronic anxiety and depression, the latter of which only intensifies as the months grow colder. Seasonal depression, which typically hits hardest in the winter, corresponds with an increased number of students seeking services at CPS during those months.
But Raines, who attended a drop-in session Feb. 20 this year, didn’t receive a call from CPS until March 13 to set up a routine counseling appointment for March 22. That’s more than a month between the initial drop-in and the appointment itself.
Patients looking to set up regular appointments may wait up to two weeks, and demand typically increases during the second half of Fall Semester.
Although numerous factors play into wait times, one problem is a dwindling number of counselors on staff. CPS Director Fred Weiner, who said there is “clearly” a need for additional staff, has been working with Pina and the Division of Student Affairs to explore new ways to increase staffing levels.
Simply put, the demand outstrips the supply, Pina said. In recent years, the department has experienced a high turnover rate, losing counselors to other universities with more competitive market salaries. Currently, the CPS staff includes 10 senior staff members, three doctoral-level interns, several graduate trainees and several part-time staff members.
Each loss is another blow to CPS, and each can hit patients, who often develop close relationships with their counselors, especially hard, Pina said.
“We’re not unique as a university in having challenges with not providing enough mental health counseling for our students,” Pina said. “Ohio State hired 10 to 15 new counselors last year. Schools all over the country are trying to figure out, ‘OK, how do we meet the needs of our students who are coming?’”
A National Trend
A February article by Scientific American, which surveyed nearly 100 universities about their mental health services and heard back from 50, cited a “striking” pattern: Students across America are often waiting weeks for initial intake exams.
In response to long waiting times, hundreds of students have been signing a petition that started at Columbia University and is addressed to the top 20 U.S. universities, demanding improved mental health support.
The survey reveals another alarming statistic: One in three students who sought some form of counseling in the past year said they had “seriously considered” suicide at some point in their lives.
At several large schools, including Indiana University, one counselor is employed for about 1,500 undergraduate students. At Ohio State University, more than a dozen new counselors were hired, shifting the ratio to about one counselor per 1,100 undergraduates.
At OU, the ratio is even higher. For every 2,400 OU students, CPS employs one full-time employee, Weiner said.
For those seeking immediate assistance, CPS offers drop-in consultations from 9:45 a.m. until 3:15 p.m. On a typical day, Weiner said up to three counselors are available to see patients with a wait time from five to 30 minutes.
Students looking to be prescribed medication may face longer waiting periods — CPS has just one full-time and one part-time psychiatrist on staff.
“Here, too, it depends on the time of the year,” Weiner said in an email. “During the first few weeks of Fall Semester, the wait (to see a psychiatrist) can be anywhere from one to two weeks. However, there is a significant increase in the time it takes to have a consult, and by the end of the fall semester, the wait time can be as much as four to six weeks.”
If students present symptoms associated with depression and anxiety, counselors may encourage them to take a trip to Campus Care, where they can consult with a doctor “much sooner,” Weiner said.
More students seek mental health care for anxiety than any other mental health concerns. According to a recent national survey from The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, approximately 47 percent of students seeking counseling services come in with anxiety-related concerns, followed by depression, relationship concerns, suicidal ideation, self-injury and alcohol abuse.
Changing the Stigma
With upcoming developments and university investment in CPS, change seems to be nearing the horizon. The effect of those efforts on wait times is still to be determined.
The larger task at hand, however, may lie in changing the stigma surrounding mental illness, not only on a national level, but on campus as well.
“With all of these things coming out about mental health, like the movie Split or the show 13 Reasons Why, I feel like they don’t depict mental illness in the way it’s supposed to be depicted, in the way that it actually is,” Behrendt said. “It’s portrayed as some glamorized form of a sickness, and that’s not what it’s supposed to be. And people need to realize that.”
In a few weeks, Pina will stand on stage at commencement. Students will cross the stage as parents breathe a sigh of relief, perhaps shedding a tear or two. But in the room, a small crowd of counselors will enjoy a silent moment of pride as their patients make the journey across the stage.
“Our staff and our SAP staff, they … know that if it wasn’t for the fact that we had CPS, and that student was brave enough ... they might not be graduating,” Pina said. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t know the third floor of Hudson is full of students that are being treated well, and I want to let them know that we’re always trying to do our best for them.”