(Credit: Salon/Ilana Lidagoster)
Nineteen-year-old Sophie described her state of mind when asked about what prompted her to seek therapy at her university’s on-campus counseling center in the spring semester of her freshman year: “I was feeling really depressed adjusting to college: the alcohol consumption, relationships, living really close to people for the first time after being an only child who was used to a lot of personal space and privacy — basically, the mess of freshman year.”
Sophie, who asked that her last name not be used, had been in therapy before. A lot of it. From age seven through 18 she had seen the same therapist back home in Los Angeles to treat her ongoing anxiety. The transition to college found her, for the first time in a long time, without a therapist to unburden herself and help her cope.
As a seasoned client she carefully unpacked for her campus counselor all the issues afflicting her and asserted a need to have someone to talk with who might really understand her. But, the counselor seemed more interested in cataloguing Sophie’s symptoms than truly listening to her painful life predicaments. Sophie’s distress was palpable as she recalled how the counselor responded.
“Being clear about what I needed felt like I was doing something wrong,” Sophie said. “The counselor knew what she wanted me to be. She wanted me to be a problem she could fix or put a band-aid on. I believe that therapy is a long-term process and the counselor was not interested in that. I only went to one appointment. It felt like I was with a graduate student getting practice doing therapy.”
After the first session, I was given a date a month later to see a different therapist,” she continued. “I’m sure the counselor had some order of immediacy, somebody who posed harm to themselves or others. I felt like I really needed help at that time but I didn’t fit their model. I wasn’t a priority.”
Adding insult to injury was the fact that Sophie had partially chosen her college over other choices because its well-advertised counseling services were a drawing point for her. Without her regular therapist and insurance coverage that would allow her to see a therapist in the nearby city, Sophie was counting on campus-based therapy. “I wish they had been more honest about what people could expect from the service,” she said. “I thought there would be more counselors. They really underestimated the number of students who prioritized their mental health.”
Sophie’s story is fairly typical of what all-too-commonly occurs on college campuses nationwide: students with complex mental health problems, and a rather sophisticated understanding of psychotherapy based on previous experience, relying on college counseling centers for quality treatment, dropping out prematurely when they encounter inexperienced clinicians who only offer crisis-intervention or a quick-fix approach.
Let’s start with findings that substantiate the complex mental health needs of the new generation of college students. Trends among college students serviced in college counseling centers tracked in the 2016 Center for Collegiate …read more