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With new director and system changes, Counseling Services seeks to improve student experiences

April 26, 2024

Dr. Shannon Jackson entered his position as director of counseling services on November 1, 2023. He brought with him plans to streamline accessibility to counseling services and place a larger emphasis on reaching out to students and hearing their opinions.

“We’ve been trying to alter how we work in terms of how we schedule students,” he said. “What I’ve been heavily invested in, in the short term, is how we can be as accessible as possible to students.”

One way this has been implemented is by having a Counseling Services staff member present at the Health Center during its normal hours, so students can receive nearly-instantaneous care in addition to access to the traditional Counseling Services at 32 College Street.

Earlier in the semester, Jackson met with Bowdoin Active Minds to hear about what the campus wished was different about Counseling Services. He said that the “wish list” they compiled was incredibly helpful, and he loves to hear what students are hoping for in the future of counseling services.

Senior class president Melissa Su ’24 served as a Peer Health leader and is now a student wellness assistant. She used Counseling Services herself throughout her junior year and notes that the program has been through many changes since she first arrived at the College.

“I think that counseling has been through a lot of ups and downs,” Su said. “There have been misconceptions on campus about [counseling].”

For Su, the misconceptions include access to counseling appointments and required group therapy workshops. She said that she never participated in previously-mandated group sessions but had heard about people’s unhappiness regarding them.

“They had such an influx of people trying to get counseling that they did these group sessions beforehand, where people would come in, sit in a group and they would probably talk about why they needed counseling,” Su said. “A lot of people were obviously uncomfortable with that. It’s not exactly what people asked for.”

In the fall of 2022, students utilizing Counseling Services were encouraged to attend three group sessions prior to their individual therapy. These mandates occurred prior to Jackson’s arrival to the College, and he does not wish to bring them back.

“We do continue to offer groups, but they are not mandatory,” Jackson said. “We offer survivors of sexual assault support; we have sessions providing students with ADD and ADHD tips and tricks we’ve learned. It’s an option, but not the [only] pathway.”

Su remains hopeful for change with new leadership and a more intentional focus on student opinions. She recently met with the new Director of Health Services Dr. Christine Mahoney and expressed her excitement for their combined efforts for health and wellness

“She has a lot of cool ideas. It’s hard to implement them when you’ve just gotten here, but she seems to have a good outlook,” Su said.

Mahoney and Jackson began their new roles at the same time and have been working together on the common goal of accessibility.

“I think the counseling office needs to be more transparent, at the very least, about what they’re doing,” Su said. “I think that leads to a lot of confusion on the part of the person who’s seeking counseling.”

Chair of Student Affairs Edmundo Ortiz Alvarez ’23 has faith in the counseling system and acknowledges its current benefits that many do not take advantage of.

“I’ve been nothing but pleased with how willing they are to hear student voices,” Alvarez said. “I’ve been very grateful … I am nothing but pro-counseling services.”

While Alvarez acknowledged the failures of the group counseling system, he focused on moving forward with changes in the counseling system responding to that negative feedback.

“I don’t know that Bowdoin students realize that that [group] system is gone, and that we’re in a system that works much better for the students,” Alvarez said. “I also don’t know if Bowdoin students are aware of how many resources are available to them.”

Alvarez cited student access to Headspace and telehealth as underappreciated resources.

“My thinking on the counseling system is that it is underappreciated. Getting to know the counselors, the counseling system and getting counseling myself have all been very important resources for me at Bowdoin,” Alvarez said.

Despite not knowing much about the counseling services program as a whole, Alvarez reflected on the benefits of counseling services and hopes that the community will utilize these resources more.

“I hope Bowdoin students are willing to engage with it in a meaningful way,” Alvarez said. “If we find in the future that the number of counselors isn’t enough, [I hope] that Bowdoin as a whole is willing to hire more.”

Counseling at the College is entirely free and completely confidential. Currently, just under 25% of the student body has used counseling services.

“Here at Bowdoin, we ask extremely ambitious and talented people to be challenged like they’ve never been challenged before. And the idea that that is a painless, joyful process is not accurate,” Jackson said. “There are moments of joy, but for many people, this could be the hardest thing they’ve ever done.”

Jackson is working to get the word out about how accessible counseling sevices can be and hopes that students will continue to give feedback to better the program.

“It’ll take time to change the narrative,” Jackson said. “But I want to show the campus, through consistent effort, that we are a useful resource. It’ll be tough, and it’ll take a while, but I think it’s worthy work.”

Editor’s Note 4/29/2024 at 1:36 p.m.: Director of Health Services Dr. Christine Mahoney’s title was amended to accurately include her doctorate title.  A previous version of this article only referred to her as Director of Health Services Christine Mahoney.


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