Visits to psych counseling up

After experiencing an additional 5 to 10 percent increase in student visitations in the past two months, following a fall increase of 20 percent, Psychological Counseling Services (PCS) has modified its schedule, shortening therapy and other sessions to 35-40 minutes. Beginning this week, the counseling sessions are down from the 50-minute sessions (scheduled in 60-minute blocks) that PCS has historically offered.

By shrinking the time of counseling sessions, approximately 40 more time slots a week have been added. The change in counseling session times does not affect PCS’s emergency services, either after-hours or during the day.

“It’s a numbers situation,” said Dr. John Miner, co-director of psychological services, who stressed the importance of availability. “We hope that [we can shorten sessions] without interfering too much with anybody’s treatment.”

“We essentially had two choices,” said Margi Wood, co-director of psychological services, regarding the increase in demand. “[We could] create more appointment times by shortening sessions a little bit or put students on a waiting list.”

PCS staff members believe that a waiting list would prevent students from accessing their services. “Other colleges have instituted waiting lists or have limited the number of visits that are allowed,” Wood and Miner said in a letter on behalf of PCS notifying students of the change in times. “We have always felt that the students in the Williams community are best served by avoiding these interventions.”

With the increase in appointment times, counseling sessions are readily available for those who request them. “Now when a student calls for an appointment, they can get one within a few days,” said Wood.

PCS responded similarly to an analogous situation that occurred four years ago. According to Miner, at that time they had one fewer part-time staff members. After shrinking sessions for the semester, PCS staff were able to determine that they needed extra staff. “We wanted to maintain access for students,” said Ruth Harrison, director of Health Services.

The past situation was similar to the current one, in that PCS determined that it did not want to have a waiting list.

“Now, we have to put all of our numbers together,” said Harrison, an account that they will not be able to compile until later in the semester. Because of this need to collect data first, PCS is not looking to hire new staff during this semester. “We are not going to hire this spring,” said Harrison. “But we will be making recommendations.”

After reviewing data on the number of student visitations, and deciding what PCS’s need for more hours would be, Harrison will submit that recommendation to senior staff. “The administration has always been very supportive of us and our services,” said Harrison expressing optimism that if PCS requests an increase in staffing, the administration will respond in a supportive manner.

“In the meantime, we will manage with reduced sessions,” Miner said. “If we have to add overflow hours, we will.”

Currently, PCS consists of nine people, all of whom are part-time. Of the nine, six are permanent staff, one is contracted staff and the final two are graduate student interns, who work under supervision. In all, PCS offers the equivalency of four full-time staff.

The spring semester increase in student visitation follows a fall semester which reached an all-time high of students seeking PCS help, as well as an unusually busy Winter Study.

During the fall semester there was a 20 percent increase in students compared to usual fall semester amounts. PCS responded by adding six additional hours a week for five weeks, Harrison said. During Winter Study, PCS usually experiences a lull in student visits, but this year that was not the case. “This January we were pretty well used,” said Wood. The opening weeks of spring semester followed this trend. “This semester, we’ve seen many more students than usual,” Wood said. “Usually, now, before spring break, we see a build-up,” Wood said. “But it started earlier.”

Harrison, Miner and Wood expressed the difficulty in determining why the number of students seeking PCS services has increased. Harrison stated that every person’s reason for seeking counseling is different. “Maybe the world changed after Virginia Tech,” she said.

Over the past year, PCS has made concerted outreach efforts to increase its presence on students’ radars. “For good reasons, therapy should be confidential. But in a college community – our notion is that it’s not adequate to wait for students to talk to us,” Miner said. “We want to let them know that we’re here.”

PCS’s recent outreach efforts have resulted in helping to organize events in conjunction with national focus, like Depression Awareness Week last October and the recent Eating Disorder Awareness Week.

Active Minds, a student-run mental health awareness and advocacy group, was created with the help of Wood last fall. “The Williams chapter is interested in opening up conversation at Williams about mental health issues in the life of students – that students have personal and psychological concerns of every level of severity, and it’s okay to acknowledge them,” Wood said. “Active Minds wants to help promote an atmosphere in which mental health issues are not stigmatized and therefore encourages students to use the resources the College provides.” The group was instrumental in organizing last week’s events for National Eating Disorder Awareness Week.

Harrison also pointed out that Paresky has given PCS services more visibility. PCS occupies an office on the second floor, and though the number of student visitors to office hours has been relatively low, Harrison said that tabling in Paresky’s bottom floor has been useful. “It’s an interesting question if the increase in numbers is because of outreach or not,” Miner said.

Either way, PCS will continue its outreach work, with at least two events planned for April. The first will be a visit from Kay Redfield Jamison, a clinical psychologist and writer who is an expert on bipolar disorder. The second will be an event featuring Cosy Sheridan, a folk singer/songwriter whose songs cover political topics such as women’s body image. These events are being planned in conjunction with the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL), which chose to focus on raising awareness of mental health issues on campus this year.

Only five years ago, what are now offices were rooms appropriated for infirmary beds. Miner’s office was once a TV lounge for students.
“The philosophy at Psych. Services is to do everything it takes to make it easier for students to come in without a lot of bureaucratic obstacles,” said Wood. “We want students to be able to come in when it’s timely and relevant to tell their stories and work on their salient concerns.”