By Breanne Riley
More than 800 Ohio Wesleyan students and staff have signed a petition addressing the counseling services wait list and a need for counseling services to become more available.
The petition states, “Administrators, we are counting on you to demonstrate a commitment to the mental health of students and employees on campus. Please pay attention to the needs of our counseling services staff and make funding choices that reflect our shared commitment to a healthy community.”
Senior Kami Goldin, resident of the Peace and Justice House, said the petition is not an attack on the administration, but an attempt to engage in conversation about the importance of all students’ mental health.
“The petition is symbolic and we’re not looking to pressure or strongarm anyone,” she said. “I’m sure that the administration will care about what students care about.”
The petition also states, “The mental health of students must be a priority for this university… Too often, students must wait days or weeks to see one of the wonderful therapists available through Ohio Wesleyan University’s Counseling Services. Please, help ensure the mental health of our students and the mental health of the counselors who support them by ensuring that they have the funding and resources they need.”
“We’d like to start a conversation, in which the petition represents student concern over this issue, but isn’t the central focus,” Goldin said. The conversation should be one in which we all talk about whether access to counseling services is an issue (because an important step is just getting everyone to agree on this premise) and then start to creatively plan ways to improve the situation.”
Goldin said the petition started at the house of peace and justice at a SLUSH event in January. She created the petition and circulated it along with others dealing with national issues.
The petition was based on conversations Goldin had with many classmates about their experiences trying to access counseling services at OWU.
“When I collected the petitions again after the event, I saw that most of them had gathered between eight and 18 signatures, except for the one about mental health at OWU, which had gathered 45 signatures,” she said. “This indicated to me that there was a real energy on campus about accessing counseling services.”
Goldin then set her goal to collect 1000 signatures, “because it’s a nice round number and represents a significant population of students,” into a house project, and approached Active Minds to collaborate.
Goldin said people generally have three types of reactions to the petition: concern, gratitude or defiance.
She said signers who are concerned say they hadn’t known that this was an issue or that mental health services are available as a resource. Those who are grateful know it is a huge problem, either for themselves or for their friends who have sought counseling, and sign the petition. A minority of people say the issue does not affect them and that they think it is not important.
The Office of Counseling Services in Hamilton-Williams Campus Center room 324 currently has three counselors. According to Colleen Cook, director of counseling services and assistant dean of student affairs, the counseling services wait list has existed for two years.
“Prior to that, our office worked to do everything we could to avoid a wait list since we know that it can often be difficult for students to make the decision to set up an appointment, and we didn’t want to discourage them when they did,” she said. “Unfortunately the demands for counseling have continued to increase every year, and the demands became too great for our office to continue to keep up.”
Cook said the term “understaffed” is likely relative to there being a waitlist. Nationally, there are offices with less staffing than Ohio Wesleyan, as well as many offices with better staffing. She said it should be noted that OWU is not alone, as several schools across the country are facing similar challenges in effectively responding to students’ mental health needs.
Psychology professor Richard Leavy, faculty advisor for Active Minds, said there is evidence of a nationwide increase in students with psychological disorders. There has also been a decrease in the stigma attached to needing counseling services.
“Expectations are also different about how much health should be accessible,” Leavy said. Frankly, the good thing on this campus is the stigma of going to counseling services is lower than it’s ever been. The reputation of counseling services on this campus is very positive. If you couple the two it stands to reason that people are going to regrettably be waiting in line to get help.”
A rape survivor said she was put on a wait list when she went into counseling services after her attack.
“It was very clear that they wanted to help me, but they couldn’t schedule me,” she said. “I was wait-listed and they saw me a week later.”
The survivor said the counselor asked if she was in any immediate danger; she said she was not. She was referred to Delaware County HelpLine and told to contact them if she felt she needed immediate help. She has been to counseling services since then, but does not see the same counselor each time. She said it took a lot of courage to reach out each time, but counseling has helped her grow stronger.
Cook said counselors typically try and triage rape survivors immediately, knowing it would be crucial to get that person the support they need as soon as possible. She said students are waitlisted when there are no openings available with any counselors.
If a student is waitlisted, a counselor contacts the student to make sure they are not at risk for harm. If the student is not at imminent risk, they are offered the opportunity to be placed on the wait list and be referred to an outside counselor. Cook said students deemed at immediate risk or are not functioning are typically seen immediately.
“As the Director of Counseling Services, I would obviously like to immediately serve all students who are in need of support, which we currently are not able to do with the resources available to us,” Cook said
Senior Tim O’Keefe, vice-president of the Wesleyan Council on Student Affairs (WCSA), said the petition was brought to his attention when a student presented it at a WCSA meeting. Most members signed the petition. Since then, he and junior Martin Clark, WCSA president, have been working with Rock Jones and the vice-presidents on campus to discuss possible solutions to the wait list problem.
“The school now has a helpline set up for students to call when the counseling services office is not open,” O’Keefe said. “(There is) Also the possibility of hiring another full time counselor.”
Kimberlie Goldsberry, dean of students and WCSA advisor, said students have brought the wait list up in meetings. She discussed the possibility of a referral to local counselors and encouraged students to stay on the wait list and schedule an appointment even if it is further out.
“It is important to remember that medical and mental health operations on college campuses and the community are typically appointment driven with a triage for emergency cases,” she said. “College operations are not typically set up like an urgent care setting, where the service is basically on a walk-in basis.”
Cook said mindfulness and grief groups are offered for those who can’t immediately get individual counseling.
According to Leavy, students will usually choose to be waitlisted despite these group therapy options.
“Now, with the percentage of students with serious mental illness who are ignoring that need, I think it is a significant worry,” he said. Every year, about 1000 college students commit suicide. And we don’t want to have suffering.”
According to the Counseling Services website, students in crisis can contact the office, open weekdays 8:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m. and 1:00-5:00 p.m.; Public Safety at (740) 368-2222; Delaware County HelpLine at (740) 369-3316; or Residential Life staff for assistance.
Cook looks forward to a resolution to the issue.
“I continue to hope for a creative solution that will allow us to serve all students who come in to our office in a timely fashion,” she said.