October 8, 2015
Anshuman Singhal, a sophomore english and sociology major at The University of Texas at Austin, is one of the thousands of students that have sought counseling at the university’s Counseling and Mental Health Center (CMHC) this semester. After he started experiencing high levels of anxiety and stress, he says he called the CMHC for an assessment.
“The people on the phone were super nice and mellow. Immediately it was very relaxing. They just kind of assist you and recommend various services,” Singhal said.
The assessment team recommended Singhal see a counselor and found him an appointment within a week. Since then, he has scheduled and attended two more sessions.
“I feel that they really listen to you and they really care, and they’re really helpful. Knowing that they’re always there for me if I need them helps a lot to. The wait time wasn’t too bad either and they have crisis lines, so if you need immediate attention it is available,” he said.
Due to the shortage of available sessions at the CMHC, however, students who don’t appear to be in distress may not be as lucky as Singhal. In fact, the number of students seen at the CMHC recently leveled out, due to a shortage of available counseling sessions.
The CMHC does not keep track of the total number of students who annually seek counseling, but according to Katy Redd, the CMHC assistant director of prevention and outreach, leveling is not reflective of less students seeking counseling, but of too many students and too few counselors.
“The only reason numbers have started to plateau is that we haven’t added any more counselors and their getting maxed out in terms of the number of clients that they could possibly see,” Redd said.
When a student calls the CMHC or walks in seeking services, an assessment team speaks with them to determine their level of distress and which services will best fit their needs. Students that seem to be having a crisis can see someone immediately during regular business hours, and those with high levels of distress receive priority appointments.
As a result of priority measures, students who don’t appear to be in distress can see much longer wait times. One UT student, for instance, said her friend was given a wait time of four or five weeks.
“My friend was not doing well. She was seriously depressed and needed to talk to someone. But I think she was good at minimizing it because every time she called the CMHC, they’d have her call back or said they didn’t have appointments available,” she said.
After a few weeks past, the student, who chose to remain anonymous to protect her friend’s privacy, started to notice that she was becoming withdrawn and talking about suicide. She called the UT Behavioral Concerns Advice Lines (BCAL) to figure out what she should do.
“They were insisting I give them her name, but I didn’t feel okay doing that, so I asked what I should do as her friend and they suggested I take her to a hospital or a clinic — somewhere she [could] get immediate attention,” she said.
The student took her friend to the emergency mental health department at the Seaton Medical Center, where she said they waited for two hours, only to have her sent home with a print out of the CMHC webpage. A few weeks later, her friend received a bill for $245 from Seaton.
After they left the hospital, the distressed student finally did get a counseling appointment at the CMHC. But after her initial appointment, her friend says she scheduled two more that were both cancelled by the counselor on the day of.
“I don’t think people should expect really professional care at the CMHC because it just isn’t there. Like I kept telling my friend to find someone in Austin, but she doesn’t want her parents to know and without insurance it is crazy expensive,” she said.
The CMHS hired five new counselors last year, bringing the current total of employed counselors to sixteen.
The five counselors were hired as Counselors in Academic Residence (CARE counselors) to meet students where they’re at. With offices located in the five largest schools on campus, they cater to students in their designated schools.
The CMHC hired CARE counselors because they found that students would go to their advisor wanting counseling, but never actually make it over to the CMHC, located on the fifth floor of the Student Services Building.
The go-to solution would be to add even more counselors to increase the number of appointments available for students, but even if it would help the CMHC extend care, Redd says the funds just aren’t there.
At the start of this school year, the entire Health Center raised the appointment fee from $5 to $10 to maintain quality service. According to the CMHC, the fee increase is a result of budget cuts that are starting to impact UT’s University Health Services.
Ninety-five percent of the Counseling and Mental Health Center’s budget comes from tuition, while the other five percent are acquired though different student fees, according to Margo Iwanski, UT open records coordinator.
Based on UT records from the 2012-2011 school year, the entire University Health Services center received $847,207 in funding from tuition dollars— only a portion of which went to the CMHS. Aside from International Education, the University Health Services is the lowest funded cause on campus.
Since adding more counselors isn’t an option financially, Redd says they are looking into other approaches.
“We always want to add more counselors, add more counselors, but I think we also need to be thinking about what are some of the other ways that we can reach students,” Redd said.
The CMHC’s biggest priority now is prevention methods, according to Redd. The Center is using what she calls an upstream approach, which entails looking at some of the programs, policies and environmental changes that can be implemented to strengthen student’s ability to cope before things feel unmanageable.
“I think every student who contemplates suicide is different. What I know is that we try to make our crisis line known, our suicide prevention coordinator trains parking garage attendants, and other folks on campus to recognize signs of distress and to know what to do,” Redd says. “We try to work with faculty, staff, and students, so that they can recognize some of the symptoms and we try to make our services known.”
The CMHC plans to continue analyzing their methods to improve efficiency.
“We try to asset what we’re doing to make sure we’re doing it the right way. I think we always are checking in and we’re not afraid to change things. Every new group of students that come in is different and we’re always trying to figure out how can we do what we do better,” she said.
Attended sessions reached a record high during the 2012-2013 school year, when more than 5,000 students attended 23,967 counseling appointments. In the 2013-2014 school year, the number of students seen decreased by less than 1,000 students. The Center predicts that numbers for this past school year will be relatively consistent with those from 2013-2014.
Counselors at the CMHC are still operating at maximum availability and as of now, the Center is not looking to employ any new counselors.