Third Student-Admin Gathering Features Mental Health Discussion

Students and administrators came together for the third Student-Administrator Gathering of the semester this past Tuesday to discuss on-campus mental health issues with the leaders of University Counseling Services (UCS). Craig Burns, director of UCS, and Julie AhnAllen, assistant director of diversity and inclusion and director of training at UCS, joined Interim Vice President of Student Affairs Joy Moore to answer questions attendees had about improving counseling services and getting the word out about programs the group has made available to students.

After Burns and AhnAllen offered brief opening remarks, the three administrators took questions from the audience for an hour, which touched on accessibility, stigmas surrounding counseling, and where students felt UCS and Student Affairs needed to work on outreach in order to properly inform the Boston College community about what services are available at UCS.

Moore led off the event by asking for a moment of silence for Patrick Gregorek, MCAS ’19, who died last Sunday. Burns gave a few remarks detailing the different challenges UCS faces, including offering aid for BC, before providing some statistics about student visits to UCS offices in Gasson Hall.

He explained that there are currently 17 full-time clinicians, which includes the four postdoctoral fellows who are a part of UCS for a year, in addition to the 13 full-time licensed clinicians. He said that UCS also employs three part-time psychiatrists, two part-time on-call clinicians, some social workers, and three administrative assistants. He described the staffing as pretty robust before noting with a laugh that, though UCS could always use “more of a resource,” he believed Moore had been strong advocate for UCS, especially as the group pursues further staffing needs moving forward.

Burns said that over his 14 years with UCS, the staff has grown “significantly.” That growth has been required—Burns said that around 1,900 students visit UCS for care every year. Last year, those students came in nearly 12,000 times total.

Burns went on to say that UCS has introduced a same-day consultation program, giving students the opportunity to attend sessions on the same day—though he noted that all same-day sessions take place during the afternoon to ensure they are all filled—outside of emergency sessions. Emergency sessions are specifically built for students who feel overwhelmed or in a dangerous mental place that requires care as soon as possible—Burns noted that emergency requests from students were up 13 to 14 percent in 2017-18 and that there has been a 200 percent increase over the last 10 years.

Moore asked Burns to elaborate on national trends affecting college students, and Burns noted that he’s seen elevated levels of distress among college-aged students, particularly in reference to increased reports of anxiety.

He pointed out that the purpose of same-day sessions is to provide an alternate entry point for BC students into UCS if they feel the need for counseling.

Burns noted that one drawback of having same day sessions is that, although such a service increases short-term availability, it hurts UCS’s ability to provide longer-term care. Burns explained that he is going to choose accessibility over depth in this area every time, since BC still has the ability to provide in-depth, shorter-term care—and that short-term care is a relative term, especially because there is no limit students are held to in regard to how many sessions they can attend. Burns also said that essentially no university counseling service care provider across the country is set up to give long-term care.

One of the first questions posed to Burns and AhnAllen related to that matter, and AhnAllen emphasized that, when students come in, UCS emphasizes that there are no session limits, but creating a treatment plan—which can involve outside resources—is a primary concern. She noted that the lone time that she’ll highly recommend a student to utilize outside resources is if she feels a student really needs resources the University cannot provide, and the patient is in serious need of significant treatment.

The University’s makeup requires that short-term be prioritized, since students aren’t a part of the institution for long enough that long-term treatment can be UCS’s top priority, Burns said. Longer-term care that UCS counselors believe requires resources outside the University is only used when counselors are sure students who require care for extended periods of time are comfortable with such a situation. In addition, UCS policy is that either counselors or administrative assistants will check-in with students who go off campus for care in order to make sure the situation is a workable one and that off-campus care is not a hindrance, according to Burns.

He also said that the introduction of the same-day consultation program had led to an increase in marginalized students coming into UCS’s offices, though he cautioned that the data available was based on a relatively small sample size. He did say that the creation of the program was geared toward increasing accessibility to UCS services for marginalized populations—57 percent of the students who have come in for same-day consultation have been AHANA+.

AhnAllen then spoke more specifically about diversity and inclusion within UCS, noting that she requires every counselor, regardless of identity, to be culturally competent so that each counselor can provide appropriate care to any student on campus. Burns would later mention that there are no specialists who work at UCS, and AhnAllen said that ensuring access for all students rather than limiting students of certain identities to talking to therapists of certain identities is tantamount in the way she considers providing care.

AhnAllen also pointed out that working through different stigmas each culture presents on campus may have is a point of emphasis for UCS. On that front, UCS has been emphasizing getting the word out about the different types of services it provides, according to AhnAllen, to different student populations in order to provide different types of access points for every student at BC.

She noted that providing treatment for first-generation students has also been one of her priorities, since the intersection of different identities under that broad banner—before even considering the difficulties inherent to being the first member of your family to attempt to attain a college degree—creates a unique challenge that UCS has worked to be more prepared for.

“So whether that’s through certain programs that we collaborate with like [Options Through Education] … and trying to forge relationships to let people know that we’re here and that we want to support students who are going to be going through the college experience without a lot of guidance,” AhnAllen said.

But, she said, working with marginalized students is also difficult because reactions to racial trauma or extraordinary loss is always going to be difficult, and that’s normal. Balancing the fact that students naturally react a certain way with giving students the chance to process their emotions without detracting from their day-to-day college experiences is far from a simple proposition.

Another student question touched on the prevalence of eating disorders on campus, which AhnAllen said she’s personally noticed as a trend within UCS. Typically, students come in for treatment, during which counselors will discover that the patient is also dealing with an eating disorder. Increasing awareness around eating disorders and ensuring students suffering from them get into treatment is of chief concern to AhnAllen.

One of the issues students brought up over and over again, though, was a lack of student awareness about the services UCS provides and the protections disabled students—students dealing with mental health issues are considered disabled by law—are afforded by the University. Burns, AhnAllen, Moore, and Dean of Students Tom Mogan—who was present at the gathering as an attendee and volunteered his thoughts from the audience—all said they were open to student input on how to better advertise what services are offered.

Mogan noted that UCS is one of the offices mentioned in his email to the community at the beginning of the year, but arranging more materials geared toward consistently pushing out information related to services provided by UCS could be something Mogan’s office can put a greater emphasis on going forward. Moore added that the issue is one that University administrators could perhaps partner with the Undergraduate Government of BC to further address the problem. Reed Piercey, UGBC president and MCAS ’19, and Michael Osaghae, UGBC president-elect and MCAS ’20, were both present at the gathering.

Another student in the audience brought up that she had had bad experiences dealing with administrators in the past when she’s had to meet with them while amid a panic attack or under serious mental pressure, advocating for increased training for members of the administration to deal with students who are working through serious mental health issues.

AhnAllen said she could work more closely with administrators to train them in a more in-depth fashion, pertaining to emergency situations, as well as work individually with administrators and students to facilitate improved relations between students under duress and administrators tasked with aiding them.

Burns noted that administrator, faculty, and student training does take place in regards to dealing with emergency situations, but that UCS will look at trying to develop more comprehensive training measures.

“But we do try to provide some important information about recognizing and responding to students in distress, understanding, what it is you might be seeing—thinking about engaging people … [and] staying engaged when the distress rises up rather than pushing away or shutting down,” he said.

Featured Image by Jonathan Ye / Heights Editor

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