Counseling Center Fails to Serve Its Students
Issue   |   Tue, 04/10/2018 - 21:36

“You are not alone. You are surrounded by people who care and want to help — your class deans, the Counseling Center, Religious Life, the office of Student Affairs … ”

I don’t know how to describe the sensation I felt when I first read this line in President Biddy Martin’s Monday email regarding the cause of death of Chris Collins ’20. Most obviously, deep sorrow at the thought of one of my classmates being lost forever. But, as someone who has sought help from the Counseling Center in the past to very little success, my emotions were much more complicated than sadness. Rather, I found myself in a state of confused, bubbling, panicked anger at what I consider an unfair representation of this campus’ commitment to protecting students’ mental health.

While I don’t mean to refute that mental health experts on campus want the best for students, I want to suggest that there are nowhere near enough resources to handle the colossal stress placed on Amherst College students, nor are any of these resources easily accessible.

First of all, both Scott House and Hitchcock House, the Counseling Center’s two main outposts, are located on a pretty solidly residential street, far removed from most of student life and necessitating a 10 minute walk way past any buildings that house classes or dorms. While I understand that this choice was probably intended to protect students’ privacy, in practice it does just the opposite. Rather, walking to the Counseling Center feels extremely conspicuous because, well, where else would you be going? In a perfect world, no student would feel a need to hide their mental health issues from their peers for fear of being stigmatized, but that does not change the fact that they have a right to do so if they wish, a practically impossible feat with the current system.

This is not to mention the difficulty in even getting an appointment at the Counseling Center, which does not have an online portal like Keefe Health Center does, considering how fully booked its counselors are on a regular basis. Seeing a psychiatrist there requires a referral from one of their therapists (some are not even psychologists). Even if you regularly meet with a therapist you found through the Counseling Center who does not work for the college and they recommend you get medication, you are not able to set up an appointment with a college psychiatrist. As a result, you must go through the laborious process of scheduling one meeting with a counselor, schlepping to the Counseling Center, getting told that you need medication (as you already know), scheduling an appointment with a psychiatrist (potentially weeks later) and then going out to the Counseling Center again for yet another meeting. If the Counseling Center made appointments with its counselors more readily available, this might not be such a problem, but many people are explicitly turned away and told that they cannot get regular treatment there. While I chose not to jump through the hoops required to receive prescriptions from one of Amherst College’s psychiatrists, a large part of that decision was based on my negative experiences with Counseling Center staff. Here, I can speak from personal experience.

I have struggled with anxiety and depression since sixth grade. Last semester, during a particularly hard time for my mental health, I scheduled my second-ever appointment with the Counseling Center. The first time, at the end of my freshman year, I was essentially told that my struggles were not serious enough to merit any further appointments, and that I should come back in case of emergency. As a result, I was apprehensive going back, but felt things were dire enough to merit action.
This second appointment was pretty nearly a disaster. After disclosing that my anxiety had gotten much worse and was significantly interfering with my academic performance and social life, I was told my problems were out of the Counseling Center’s scope and that they would not be able to meet with me weekly. Instead, they promised to redirect me to a therapist in town (an expensive endeavor, although I luckily have the resources to cover the cost). I only received a list of therapists after emailing them several days later to remind them that I was waiting. Later, when I contacted them, many of the therapists told me they were not taking new patients.

This encounter raises so many questions that I don’t even know where to begin. What if I were not able to afford a therapist? If I was originally too healthy to see the Counseling Center and I was now considered too far gone for them to help, at what point was I supposed to contact them? When could I expect meaningful assistance from them?

I know my story is not unique. I have heard stories of medications being mixed up, students that feel overwhelmed being told to transfer, countless students getting lost in the shuffle as the center tries to cram in appointment after appointment and much more. These stories are not only deeply troubling, but also lead me to question how genuine the administration is when it encourages students to seek help. Clearly, the Counseling Center is already straining under the demand. If Amherst is serious about providing adequate mental health resources to its students, I hope it will take the step of expanding the Counseling Center and improving its accessibility, possibly even relocating it to a more convenient spot.

Again, I want to make clear that I don’t write this to disparage the therapists or psychiatrists currently working at the Counseling Center. As Biddy said, our community is going through a period of healing, and it is not my intention to exacerbate that pain by throwing stones, especially when I believe that these counselors are qualified to help, but are simply overworked. It is my duty, however, to speak out and demand that Amherst step up when it comes to meeting students’ mental health needs.

In her email, Biddy also mentioned the work of the student organization Active Minds. I truly commend the work these students are doing to destigmatize mental illness and represent the many students who suffer with it in various forms. My therapist once told me she wished I could see how many students at Amherst deal with anxiety and depression every day. I feel like I’m starting to. I just hope the Counseling Center can see them, too.

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Wed, 04/11/2018 - 13:13

I had been working up the energy for weeks to get to the counseling center, then they scheduled over my appointment, had me reschedule and then canceled my apointmrnt alltogether. This was on the same day that biddy was sending emails again and again saying the counseling center is here to support you. I’ve given up