Counseling Service grapples with increased demand
May 5, 2017
The number of students seeking counseling services at Bowdoin has increased dramatically over the past decade, making it difficult for Counseling Service to accommodate all students’ needs and driving some students to seek help through off-campus providers. Ten years ago, 17.5 percent of Bowdoin students utilized counseling; now, that number is 26 percent—meaning 146 more students.
As reported by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, this uptick is not unique to Bowdoin. The rise in college students’ demand for counseling services has outpaced the rise in enrollment by five times.
According to Dr. Bernie Hershberger, director of counseling services and wellness programs, providing weekly services has simply become unfeasible.
“Probably about three years ago we started to [realize] that we just couldn’t offer weekly therapy across the board,” he said. “We started to move to the idea that we would offer every-other-week therapy and that we would give students weekly support when they were going through a crisis or a difficult situation.”
This has meant that Counseling often is forced to refer students who want to meet with a counselor on a more regular basis to off-campus options.
“We would start to have waiting lists if we didn’t have the option to say to some students, if you know that you want weekly therapy and you have insurance that will cover that, we’ll help you find someone,” Hershberger added about the overcrowding in the counseling center.
Harris Fisher ’17 has had a generally positive experience with Counseling, meeting with former counselor Allie McGrath and Hershberger for the past three years. While he used to have weekly meetings, he has been moved to once every two weeks, as the Counseling Service currently only has 10 staff members to handle 462 students. Fisher readily admitted the difficulties associated with the transition.
“To be honest, it’s harder,” Fisher said. “So much changes in two weeks at Bowdoin that I feel like I’m a different person every time I walk in, and it takes so long just to say what happened since the last meeting that I don’t really get to jump into anything. So, yeah, we need more staff … It’s ridiculous.”
Much of Counseling’s resources are, at the moment, focused on treating anxiety. This also mirrors nationwide trends.
“One of our biggest concerns over the last decade or more is increasing anxiety,” Hershberger said. “I think it’s kind of a perfect storm of high achieving students, very perfectionistic standards, millennial standards, just the amount of anxiety students deal with in terms of information constantly … It’s just ridiculous, the amount of anxiety on young adults right now is more than I’ve seen in my entire lifetime.”
This particular focus, though, leaves Counseling Service with less time to spend on other matters. Abby Motycka ’17 believes Counseling as it currently operates is unequipped to treat certain issues. After trying out one-on-one counseling and group therapy offered by Bowdoin counseling, she moved off-campus.
“There’s definitely a threshold of things they can handle, and when I started going I realized that I was [over] that threshold pretty quickly. I only went for a couple months, and then I stopped going because I didn’t like it and didn’t really feel like it was going anywhere,” she said.
Counseling Service’s overcrowding also contributed to her problems with its care.
“You kind of feel like cattle in there, [there’s] people shuffling in and out and it’s not really personal,” Motycka continued.
Hershberger agreed that Counseling has resources too limited for the scope of services it would like to provide.
“We’re kind of in a bit of a dilemma because we would like to offer more services,” he noted. “One of the things that’s challenging is case management—supporting students to find the things that they might need off campus. Or to be able to arrange neuro-psych testing for students, for example that case management function is not as fully developed as we would like.”
If students are considering a move offcampus, they cannot rely on case management from Bowdoin’s counseling staff because of how busy counselors are with their own patients. According to Hershberger, in general counselors see 24-26 students per week and lead one or two group sessions.
This issue is broadly acknowledged by students who had experience with Counseling Service, six of whom spoke to the Orient.
Chris Gys ’17 moved his coverage off campus after coming back to Brunswick from being abroad.
“I just think the tone was ‘yeah this is OK [to go to counseling],’ but they would also acknowledge that they have a lot of students and they would ask about a timeframe, and I just wanted to do counseling consistently without a timeframe of weeks,” he said.
When Gys first went to counseling in the second semester of his first year, he filled out a form that asked for an estimate of how many sessions he would require. All students are required to answer this question as part of their intake form.
Kiki Nakamura ’17 is a member of Grief Group, which she joined after her younger sister passed away the summer before her sophomore year, but she has not seen counseling on a consistent basis. Grief Group meets once a month; a member of Counseling Service attends these meetings, but they are organized by students.
“I have gone to counseling, but it’s been really sporadic, and it’s hard because I don’t have consistent appointments,” Nakamura said. “At the same time when I do need counseling, it will take a week for me to get a spot, and that’s really difficult because you can’t really plan grief, when it happens it happens at that moment, not a week later. So, that’s been my frustration.
To see someone more regularly, students often choose to move off campus for counseling services. This adds an additional, and often significant, expense. Motycka went from using the free services provided at Bowdoin to paying $110 per hour-long session in town.
According to Hershberger, the Office of the Dean of Student Affairs offers financial aid to students who need it to see off-campus counselors, but this is not transparently advertised.
Anastasia Hediger ’17 considered moan off-campus provider after a difficult relationship with a psychiatrist connected to Counseling Service but instead decided to change Bowdoin psychiatrists and remain on campus because the services Bowdoin provides are easily accessible and free.
“I think in general it’s been a helpful supplement to my experience here. Given the fact that I haven’t paid anything extra to use these services, I’m overall very grateful that they’re here. It’s of course a flawed system, but they’re trying to meet the demand in the best way that they can,” Hediger said.
Nevertheless, the experience for her has not always been as fulfilling as she would hope.
“I think I was just drawn to the free service, and knew that I wasn’t going to get a lot back necessarily, but it was just a place to go and hash things out,” Hediger said. “Hopefully after Bowdoin I’ll find a much more comprehensive form of therapy.”
Of course, this costs money, too.
“I’d like to [continue seeing someone after I graduate], but people were telling me it’s $100 an hour, and I just can’t imagine being able to afford that after Bowdoin,” said Nakamura.
Counseling Service consistently attempts to innovate to respond to both students’ concerns and difficulties it recognizes itself; at the moment, most counseling staff work at 32 College Street while others are in satellite offices in the Gustafson House at 261 Maine Street. Hershberger believes that a redesigned center that could hold all of the counseling staff under one roof would improve communication in his department. This space is also mentioned in the College’s self-study draft, published in March 2017.
“There’s a designated place and we’ve done the exploration for zoning, and it’s a building the College already owned,” Hershberger said. “We’re really far down the road on this. We could build just as soon as we get funding.”
The plans have been on hold, though, since President Clayton Rose began his tenure last fall.
“I think we had the green light to move ahead with this with the last president and then we got slowed … I think everything is kind of slowing down on campus in terms of building and funding. I think we’ll be on our own for another waiting period for a while,” Hershberger continued.
Fisher believes that to get the ball rolling again, counseling has to, counterintuitively, create more demand.
“Right now it seems like [counseling is] just at capacity, but if there were a huge uptick in students coming in and requesting counseling, then they can go to the administration and say, ‘look we can’t do anything with these kids,’ and then the administration has more pressure to act,” Fisher continued.
Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster declined to comment on overcrowding at the Counseling Service, referring the Orient back to Hershberger.
Many students, though, feel underserved precisely because the Dean’s Office has not provided more financial support for a very full counseling center.
“I haven’t really even fully been able to deal with my grief yet, which has been really hard,” Nakamura concluded. “Because there will be times when I’ll go for months without crying, and then all of a sudden one day will just be a really tough day and almost replicate the day that my sister actually passed away, and I think that’s just a manifestation of my never being able to deal with grief directly while I was at Bowdoin.”
Meg Robbins contributed to this report.
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I strongly believe that counseling at Bowdoin needs to be expanded. There are so many issues on Bowdoin’s campus – anxiety, depression, sexual assualt, eating disorders – that require intensive counseling. The number of counselors is simply not enough to adequately serve the student population needing service.
After graduating from Bowdoin, I am attending a university which has a counseling center with number of providers matching the needs of the student body. The difference between the two cultures is astonishing, and the impact of well-publicized counseling is visible.
Bowdoin is a wonderful place; it would be even better with changes to the counseling center.
Does anyone think there’s a deeper message in this story?
Yes, I do. Undoubtedly their are a number of students who genuinely need mental health services. However, speaking as a Gen-Xer who attended a private college and then went off to war where real anxiety comes in the form of bullets flying past your head and losing colleagues in action, a lot of these Millenials need to buck up and grow a thicker skin. Getting a ‘B-‘ instead of an ‘A’ isn’t the end of the world and if Mummy & Daddy are riding you too hard, act like the adult you are and tell them to back off. My younger siblings are Millenials and I’ve worked with plenty of Millenials over the years – many of you are far too soft. This world is going to eat you alive and spit you out once you leave the confines of the bubble. The real world is not going to coddle you.