Asa Daniels, senior staff writer
During this semester, Berry College’s Counseling Center has already seen 200 students for services, while they normally see 200 within a full academic year, according to Becca Smith, the Counseling Center director.
This is a national phenomenon as well, Smith says, as colleges across the country are seeing an uptick in counseling service use. Smith explained that larger colleges, due to their commuter base, generally see about 10% of their students for services. Meanwhile, smaller, residential colleges are seeing 20% of their students. Berry is among these smaller colleges and historically has been closer to the 15% mark before now.
Smith explained that due to high demand, the Counseling Center is now making reoccurring appointments every three weeks instead of every two weeks. This is detrimental to their wellbeing and challenges students’ ability to get better sooner.
“What’s happened is, when you drag that out, they keep coming, they don’t really get better and so we haven’t really lost clients like we normally would, they don’t drop off like they normally do because they’re still feeling really stressed,” Smith said.
Smith believes that it is a number of factors that have resulted in the increased demand for the counseling center by Berry students. One of those causes is the continued COVID-19 pandemic and its associated stressors.
“We’ve had some more social anxiety, especially with sophomores and freshmen who have just had a lot of disruption in their high school plus first year in college,” Smith said.
Furthermore, Smith said it could also be students having a more difficult time balancing their various classes, jobs and interests as Berry students.
“They can’t quite meet those expectations anymore and so, they’re frustrated and they’re not sure what to do, so coming in here can kind of clear things up,” Smith said.
Smith added that, since the Counseling Center has returned to in-person services, the Virtual Care Group has become a less attractive choice for students. She also said that the virtual service has undergone some changes that make it more difficult for students to use.
“This year, you get seen in person and it’s just different, a different feel, and Virtual Care has kind of changed their platform – some people lost their therapist that they did have, they’re having some trouble with their customer service, and there’s been some other glitches that students have mentioned,” Smith said.
Smith also believes that her practice of going out across campus to various groups and events has helped to make the Counseling Center a more accessible location for students.
“Getting out there on campus and breaking the barriers, being involved, I think when students see you, it’s less scary to try and come in here,” Smith said.
Smith also believes that word-of-mouth among students, their friends and the groups that they are a part of across campus helps connect students with the Counseling Center and motivates them to use those services. Smith is thankful for these various groups for spreading the word and also for being places that can provide support for students, thus decreasing the load of the Counseling Center.
“I think our numbers would be even higher if I didn’t have academic advisors out there, faculty, [the] Academic Success Center, the coaches, the athletic trainers, I mean, so many of these students have so many people they could go to and it’s only when those resources are burnt [out] that they come here,” Smith said.
Michael McElveen, assistant dean of student wellness, said that the interaction of the Health Center, the Berry Reducing Assault and Violence through Education (BRAVE) grant, the Counseling Center and Recreation together are another example of different entities on campus helping care for student mental health. This includes making sure that the different groups interact together when working on similar topics.
“So, if the Peer Eds are doing a program, like this week the Stall Wall is bystander intervention, and so that plays nicely into what the BRAVE project does, they’re also educating on it, and so, how do we work together and collaborate on that?” McElveen said.
In terms of finding solutions to help address the discrepancy between supply and demand at the Counseling Center, Smith said that the 30-minute Solution Sessions have been useful. These are sessions from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. every weekday that students without an appointment, or an urgent emergency, can call to set up. Smith explained that these are useful for students who may not need to be seen for an extended period of time.
“For some people, they don’t need that long in therapy, they’re just going through a moment right now, that if they can be seen and heard and validated, or they can be given a few different thoughts or ideas on what to do, how to manage this, then they don’t need to continually be seen here,” Smith said.
Smith wanted to emphasize that students should come to a Solution Session if they are undergoing a more moderate to serious mental event, though it can be difficult to universally define what a stressful event that is worth going to a session for.
“What’s a crisis to one person may not be a crisis to another – so if it’s a crisis to you and you’re struggling – call,” Smith said.
Smith added that students should not view sessions as a one-time thing and that, if needed, they can come in for a few more sessions.
“It’s not a one-and-done service, if you’re still not better, you can come back,” Smith said. “We don’t want people to underutilize it, we don’t want people to overutilize it, we want them to use it as appropriately as possible.”
Smith said that students can call the Counseling Center if they have any questions about services, including Solution Sessions.
After Thanksgiving Break and during Finals Week, an extra hour of Solution Sessions will be added in for students to use.
In terms of other possible solutions to help address demand, Smith said that she hopes the money going towards the Virtual Care Group could be used to hire another part-time counselor and move up their current part-time position to a full-time position. Smith is also looking into adding an unpaid intern to the staff from either West Georgia, Georgia State or Liberty University who lives in the Rome area and would be able to service students, helping to lighten the Counseling Center’s load without putting a burden on their budget.
Smith also said that she has just begun planning for Peer Mentors, which will be a group of Berry students that would act on minor stressors to help students talk about mental health struggles.
“They’re not confidential like a licensed counselor, but they would be private and so if you just had a breakup or you just have some academic stress and you’re okay to talk to a psychology major who’s trying to get a little bit of experience in this, they would be under mine or Terri [Cordle’s] supervision, and they would do two or three hours a week, probably like the same 30-minute sessions, maybe hour sessions, depending on how we would work that out,” Smith said.
However, according to Smith, this is a long-term idea that has yet to go into solid planning or preparation.
Another solution McElveen included is the recent acquisition of the Substance-Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Campus Suicide Prevention grant, a three-year grant. The grant aims to help educate the campus by the hiring of an additional counselor who trains faculty, staff and students in suicide awareness.
“[We want to] equip and do training across campus so that all of our faculty and staff and our student leaders are equipped to help students,” McElveen said. “[This is] to hopefully create an overall healthier community.”
Smith also said that she hopes the Counseling Center may get new or larger office space in the future to help accommodate the load, especially since she doesn’t expect the demand to go down.
“I don’t think, all of a sudden, our numbers are going to go down, even if COVID kind of [ends], I think we’re just gonna see that, once people have broken that barrier to come to counseling, I don’t think that stops,” Smith said. “What people see is that, once you hit that 15 or 20% mark, it doesn’t usually go down, it just stays consistent or goes up a little higher.”
McElveen reiterated that students should continue to come to the Counseling Center for their needs and that they are working on solutions for the future.
“I want students to know that we’re here for them and that we’re working hard to provide really great services for them and we know [that] there’s a supply and demand issue and we’re trying our best to address that,” McElveen said. “Keep asking for the services and coming in to utilize the services.”