Counseling Center Needs to Expand
Published: Thursday, May 3, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11
This past Saturday, I sat among a group of seven students who crowded into the office of Patrick Gilligan, Director of Counseling Services, all of us bent on fighting mental health issues on campus. During the conversation, Gilligan mentioned the “counselor on call,” a Kenyon counselor who is always available via Campus Safety to address mental health crises. I was one of two students who had heard of the option.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve brought up the counselor-on-call option to all my friends. Only one had heard about it. When a friend of mine attempted suicide earlier this year, the student who drove them to the hospital and stayed all night hadn’t heard of it either. Another student I know has irregular manic episodes, and until recently none of their friends knew to call Campus Safety.
The counselor on call program gets calls three to four times a week, despite this limited awareness, according to Gilligan. The Counseling Center itself deals with mental health crises multiple times a day.
Why don’t we hear about these emergencies? Students call in sick with a doctor’s note and tell all their friends, who then keep watch and provide support. Rarely, if ever, do students suffering from severe mental health issues tell anybody but their teachers or close friends.
Gilligan estimates, however, that about 10 percent of Kenyon’s student population wrestles with active levels of suicidal thinking, which is in accordance with the national average. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in college students ages 20 to 24. He also estimates that 10 to 15 percent of students have severe eating issues and mentioned that 40 percent of college students report some period of time of marked feelings of depression. One out of every four college students suffers from some sort of diagnosable mental illness, according to Mental Health America.
During the meeting on Saturday, one of the most heavily discussed issues was how students on campus often feel alone in dealing with their mental health issues. Every student in Gilligan’s office that day had friends who would like to use the Counseling Center but feel uncomfortable doing so. Perhaps, if these students were made aware that over 560 Kenyon students (30 percent of the student body) visit the Center every year, and that there are about 300 counseling sessions a week, they wouldn’t feel so alone.
The culture of silence surrounding mental health can quickly skew perceptions of the issue — most of what I hear from other students regarding the Counseling Center is fragmented and passed down in hushed tones from one person to the next. I’ve come across numerous complaints about the Counseling Center, all of which are valid, including a heart-breaking account of a breach of confidentiality, low opinions of specific counselors, lag-time when making appointments and inconvenient hours. But I haven’t heard any positive stories about the Counseling Center.
As a matter of fact, when I first started talking to Gilligan about mental health on campus, I was under the impression that students were generally dissatisfied with the Center. Gilligan was surprised — he hears only from the students who come in, and they generally leave feeling positive about their experience. The Center conducts an annual satisfaction survey among students using their facility and, overall, the results are consistently positive. Additionally, the 30 percent of students seen by Kenyon’s Counseling Center is double the national average.
Seeing such a high number of students is possible not because of greater funding, but because the Counseling Center staff work long weeks — Gilligan puts in between 55 and 60 hours a week, working after hours and on weekends, and his staff are similarly booked. The national average for a full-time counselor is 26 hours a week — he works more than double. And while he says he’s okay, he admits that his staff feels somewhat overworked.
The Counseling Center does a good job with its limited resources, but it’s not enough to be better than the national average if students still feel alone in dealing with their mental health issues or are kept in the dark about their options.
These and other issues were addressed at the meeting on Saturday. Gilligan is currently planning to form a group of students who will spread awareness regarding the presence of counseling services, fight the stigma attached to mental health and encourage students to seek help. This is a heartening development, but Gilligan is concerned with what an increase in awareness might mean for the Counseling Center: “I do it knowing we might get even more people next year,” he said. “If we go much higher than the national average, I don’t know what we’ll do.”
In other words, there exists no all-encompassing solution. Developing a safe room for students experiencing a mental health crisis, making the counselor on call a direct 24-hour hotline, unifying the student-run organizations pertaining to mental health, expanding Kenyon’s mental health staff, re-appropriating funding, bringing a trained psychiatrist on campus and making medical supplies more available are all logistical improvements needed on campus.
But more than anything, what Kenyon needs to do is to break down the culture of silence surrounding this issue. And that starts with you, asking your friends and sharing your own experiences.