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Defending the need for quality counseling

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October 20, 2015

11:18 AM

We know staggering numbers of William and Mary students seek help at the Counseling Center every year and that this campus has a suicide problem. We also know that the Counseling Center lacks resources — most notably, an on-site psychiatrist. Nevertheless, with each suicide, editorials, Washington Post articles and indictments of our mental health system flare up, and after a few months, fizzle out. So why do we have only a short-term memory when dealing with these issues?

“We need a sustained effort to improve our mental health treatment on campus and to bring visibility to the system that has failed so many students — myself included.”

Like many of my peers, I live with depression. To my horror, I was recently summoned to the Dean of Students office. Students like me get flagged — fortunately, I got lucky with a particularly good assistant Dean, but some students have surfaced from that office in much worse situations. Although I was told I was a high-risk student, and that they wanted to keep an eye on me without majorly infringing on my autonomy, the conversation kept circling back to the atmosphere of fear that surrounds the Dean of Students Office and the ether of frustration with the Counseling Center. The assistant dean and I agreed: there’s an indisputable problem at the College. We need a sustained effort to improve our mental health treatment on campus and to bring visibility to the system that has failed so many students — myself included.

I acknowledge that there are many good people who work at the Counseling Center, tirelessly helping students despite limited resources and funding. However, that’s no excuse for dysfunctionality; anyone who’s been to Counseling with a major problem knows what I’m talking about. As The Flat Hat reported last year, students seeking help have a 58 percent chance of meeting with someone who does not have a psychiatry license. That should unsettle you; it might be sufficient for some and help with understaffing problems, but it’s left me feeling worse than when I came in.

“She suggested I was taking too many credits and that maybe the college transition was tough. I felt more alienated than anyone should ever feel.”

My freshman year, I sought help for my depression — depression I’ve dealt with for five years but for which I only recently found the courage to seek treatment. I was paired with an intern who video recorded our sessions, relentlessly interrogated me and persistently steered our conversation toward more problems rather than solutions. She suggested I was taking too many credits and that maybe the college transition was tough. I felt more alienated than anyone should ever feel.

Giving our school’s services another chance, I visited the Student Health Center seeking antidepressants at the end of last year. I saw a general practitioner who prescribed the wrong type of medication to me; it was only when I saw a professional psychiatrist in Washington, D.C. that I learned I was taking a less effective and more harmful drug, wholly unsuited for my type of depression.

After our third suicide last year, The Washington Post reported that the school would “add services such as an after-hours call center and a full-time psychiatrist.” Where is our promised psychiatrist? The psychiatrist that could have saved me from numerous co-payments and paralyzing withdrawal symptoms? I suppose he, too, is a casualty of our campus’ fickle memory.

“I’ll be indebted to this school long after I graduate, but it owes me one thing in return: proper treatment.”

At the Counseling Center, your problems are either too minor or too major to be dealt with on-site. My friends seeking help for anxiety and mild depression have been pushed off into group therapy, a form of therapy that few find helpful or comforting. Alternatively, those seeking treatment for severe depression have been sent to outside therapists, myself included. Some have even been kicked out of school, forced to take medical leave, as they are too much of a liability to remain here. What message do you think that sends to a person with depression?

“You’re too much of a liability to remain here, in this place you’ve found comfort. Your problems are too major for us to handle, go be on your own. Move away from your friends, your fraternity, your sports team — go pay for an expensive therapist and watch your friends graduate, leaving William and Mary before you have any hope of returning.”

This story is more common than I’d like to believe.

I love so many things about this place. This is where I met the three best friends anyone could hope for, where I started College Libertarians and watched it grow from three people to 35 over the course of a few months. This is where I met my boyfriend, my tireless support system. This is where I streaked Zable Stadium, sang the Alma Mater at the Sir Christopher Wren Building with International Relations Club friends before they graduated and taught middle schoolers the nuances of foreign policy. This is where Professor Sohoni’s Race and Crime class inspired my passion for criminal justice reform and the pursuit of true racial equality. I’ll be indebted to this school long after I graduate, but it owes me one thing in return: proper treatment.

“But from my vantage point, I can see the cracks in the system and know we can’t settle for anything less than proper treatment.”

Every time I pass the Zable Stadium construction zone, I’m reminded of our campus’ skewed priorities. Just because some donations are earmarked doesn’t mean we can’t renovate Zable and appropriate more funds towards the Counseling Center. Hire the psychiatrist you’ve been talking about for so long. Extend Counseling Center hours; make sure it has enough capacity to provide quality, free, weekly treatment to students who need it. Have interns and practicum students shadow licensed therapists instead of giving them their own caseloads. Make sure students aren’t scared of being kicked out of school when they’re summoned to the Dean of Students Office.

I’ve been lucky so far; I’m doing okay right now, my Dean of Students Office visit went well. But from my vantage point, I can see the cracks in the system and know we can’t settle for anything less than proper treatment.

I’ll write an op-ed every week if I have to in order to make our problem visible. Care about this: it affects the people you love.

Email Elizabeth Wolfe at [email protected]

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  • Liz Wolfe