While discussions about mental health are becoming more open and common, we still have a lot to learn on university and college campuses about how to best maintain that health and prevent illness. Specifically, how do institutions of higher education better deliver resources to the thousands of students who need them?
One student at Washington University in St. Louis, responding to an informal survey conducted by Frontiers Magazine, summed up the attitude of many students toward campus mental health resources: “They are inaccessible when you most need them.”
For years, it’s been acknowledged by many students that Student Health Services (SHS) has enormously long wait times for mental health appointments. They offer nine free appointments, but some students may have to wait until the start of a new semester before getting a second appointment. Depending on the time of year and whether they want to see a psychiatrist or psychologist, students cited anywhere from one day to six weeks before they could obtain an appointment. Alternatives include simply talking to a friend, or off-campus treatment, which can be costly and difficult to access. However, many students, with some variation based on specific counselors, stated that once they were able to have an appointment, the SHS counselors were most helpful in comparison to alternatives like talking to a friend and could get to the heart of the issue most quickly. Counselors are also able to provide referrals to more appropriate resources.
“SHS is always trying to improve. And they do a great job with the resources that they have. The problem is that there are not enough resources,” said Brian Adler, a sophomore in Student Union Senate who has been working for about a year on a resolution to reduce SHS appointment wait times.
The resolution was passed unanimously on Tuesday, October 11, a testament to how important and uncontroversial this issue is to the student body. And apparently to administration.
“It was important to have student input to begin providing resources. So far, the administration has been very receptive, and we have an official channel of communication created by the resolution with various faculty in order to alleviate wait times and improve mental health,” Adler said. It was important to Student Union that a student representative always be present at these conversations.
As a result of the resolution, administration has decided to phase in five new physicians within the next three years. Also, as part of an effort to update existing technology, research is being done on a possible app that students could utilize to sign up for, change, and cancel appointments. In theory easier to use than the current website, this app would hopefully reduce the number of missed appointments that other students could take advantage of. This idea was the first part of the resolution, but soon ideas “ideas escalated to how we can improve beyond just an application,” said Adler. He talked about providing information about off-campus resources located along the Metro line and current campus programs like “Let’s Talk,” a brief, confidential walk-in appointment with a counselor on campus.
Moreover, prevention of mental health issues, or at least alleviating its burden, is increasingly becoming an area of concern and interest. For example, a “Zen Zone” was proposed by a Student Union Senator as a spot on campus where students can relax and escape stress, much like events and organizations such as Meditation Monday in the Danforth University Center or Stressbusters. Wellness coaching is another area of improvement and focus. SHS counselors themselves are being trained and advised to provide referrals earlier rather than later.
These changes are coming, though it might be frustrating to upperclassmen who might not be able to reap the full benefits of the resolution. Some respondents wrote, disheartened, “I am so disappointed in and ashamed of our administration that our tuition can fund a new athletic center, pay to host a presidential debate, buy everyone tempur pedic [sic] mattresses, etc. But the university sweeps mental health issues under the rug and keeps SHS mental health tragically understaffed instead of hiring more counselors.” Others recognized the importance of campus mental health staff, saying, “I think SHS gets bashed on a lot, but they do try their best. Once you get an appointment, the experience is great. The most negative aspect is just the waiting time. I think they might need more counselors. Or [sic] they should change their structure to where you can schedule more appointments in advance, so it’s more structured for the entire semester.”
For an issue that has been so frustrating for so many students, Adler is both happy and sad that this is the first resolution to reduce wait times at SHS. “I think many had the attitude, ‘Don’t even bother trying,’ thinking that no one was really listening to them.” But he wants people to know that things are getting done. “In the past, administration has had numbers, but the reality is that conveying student concern was vital to obtaining funding for these programs and increasing staff.”
He goes on to encourage people to recognize that administration and SHS really do care about students, but have been hamstrung by funding and other resources. And with an issue that many would like to see fixed, a collaborative team effort is in full swing — it just may take some time to see the benefits.