Counseling Services Expands Staff to Meet Demand

Katherine Hazen '18 Staff Writer 

In response to student demand, counseling services has promoted its current staff from part-time to full-time and will employ another half-time psychiatrist for the 2015 to 2016 school year.  A myriad of factors played into the problems that faced counseling services this past year, the crux of which is a surge in Smith students seeking help.

Students began to give feedback on their experience with counseling services to the student organization Active Minds in the beginning of this school year.  Active Minds and the Student Government Association collaborated and presented this problem to the Board of Trustees.  The issues with counseling services have been a priority for the Board of Trustees and SGA since the beginning of the fall semester, according to Greta Stacy ’15, SGA President.  According to SGA’s mid-semester feedback, counseling services issues were the most common complaints raised by students.

The staffing shortage forced counseling services to refer students to practices in Northampton, some of which do not accept Smith insurance.  For students who continue to use Smith counseling services, many cannot see the same counselor, or they have to wait an extended amount of time between appointments.  Furthermore, students commented that the staff is not diverse.

“People want to see a counselor who can identify with their experiences,” Stacy said.

“While there’s always room for more diversity, a little staff is simply not going to be able to be representative of everyone on this campus,” Pamela McCarthy, director of the office, said.  However, the staff takes the need to be “culturally competent” seriously, stated McCarthy.

The staff consists of a full-time psychiatrist, the four staff members who were recently promoted to full-time and two graduate interns who work four days a week.  In fall 2014, 20 percent of the student population sought help from counseling services, a marked increase from recent years.  One factor, McCarthy suggested, is the new location and building of Health Services.  The Schacht Center for Health and Wellness is located more conveniently than the Mason Infirmary, and the building itself is also more inviting.

“Beyond that, usage over time has been increasing.  We have not entirely kept pace staffing-wise with usage,” McCarthy added.

Colleges across the nation are currently reviewing their mental health services, as the number of students experiencing depression, anxiety or having had suicidal thoughts is on the rise, in addition to the increase in student suicides.  According to the American College Health Association’s annual survey, 53 percent of students reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function” in 2014.

The increase in students diagnosed with mental illness is due in part to the ever-lessening stigma of mental illness and therapy.  The atmosphere of stress in collegiate environments, referred to at Smith as a “stress competition,” manifests itself in the fact that students seek counseling in greater numbers.  Dr. Micky Sharma, director of Ohio State University’s counseling services, stated that most colleges or universities see about seven to 12 percent of its student population use their services, although in the American College Health Association survey 18 percent of respondents stated they used their school’s counseling service.  According to McCarthy, at small, private institutions, that number is typically 14 percent, and for all-women’s colleges, “Smith is on par.”

“People can’t give themselves permission not to be studying, and I think that’s a real cause of stress,” McCarthy said when asked about this national concern.  “I’m all for seeing a better balance [between study and relaxation] on campus.”