Though the Binghamton University Counseling Center meets national recommendations on paper in terms of its counselor-to-patient ratio, waiting list numbers and general services, some students feel that those in need are often turned away.
A Binghamton University senior, who like all students interviewed for this report, requested anonymity to discuss personal matters frankly, decided to inquire at the University Counseling Center last semester. Prior to her visit, she avoided seeking help.
“Senior year is stressful enough without having added anxiety from sources other than my academics,” the senior said. “I had been talking to my friends about speaking to a counselor, and since my situation only got worse, I decided to finally go.”
The senior told Pipe Dream her first counseling appointment was a success, despite her initial hesitation — she shared an abridged version of her life story and felt she had made a connection with the counselor.
However, at the end of her second appointment, she received the disheartening news that her counselor did not have enough time to add a new client, but she would be added to the counseling wait-list.
“It was hard enough for me to get myself to go the Counseling Center, nonetheless get turned down once I was there,” the senior said. “It sucks because I was initially pleasantly surprised with my counseling experience, but my original weariness toward counseling was quickly affirmed once I was, for all intents and purposes, rejected.”
The senior said this experience discouraged her from seeking future counseling.
“The whole situation is just painful. It was hard for me to open up to my counselor, and hard for me to get turned down,” she said. “People like me need positive reinforcement, and now it’s like I went backwards.”
PAYING FOR THE CENTER
The Counseling Center provides “free” services, which gives students the freedom to make appointments without requesting payment from their parents.
“The fact that we don’t charge students when they come in the door is a great way that we eliminate a barrier for many students,” said Johann Fiore-Conte, director of health and counseling services. “If we were charging them, I don’t think we’d get the follow-up and compliance rates that we get.”
The Counseling Center is funded entirely by the $175 Student Health Fee charged to full-time students each semester, which also funds Decker’s Health Services Center.
About 1,000 students use the Counseling Center each year. The typical BU counselor sees an average of 20 patients a week, and patients average about five sessions throughout the semester.
“What that allows a student to do is have access to the Counseling Center and as many visits over at Health Services as they would need to have, which is a really good value for the money if you utilize the service,” Fiore-Conte said.
The fees are used to pay for personnel and overhead costs, short-term medication available at Health Services and other medical supplies. They also allow the Counseling Center to provide outreach programs, crisis counseling and educational services, according to Mark Rice, clinical director of counseling services.
Th University’s fee process considers need throughout campus and within departments, Rice said. Based on this need, the counseling staff has, over the past few years, seen an increase in staff positions since 2009, according to Fiore-Conte.
These positions include two full-time counselors and an increase to the on-campus psychiatrists’ hours.
Rice said the funding at BU works on a need-based level.
“It works more in a way that speaks to what our priorities are and what our need is,” Rice said. “The need needs to be clearly documented in order to receive more funding.”
MEETING THE STAFF
Currently, the Counseling Center meets the recommendations put forth by the International Association of Counseling Services, which accredits campus counseling centers. BU has 10 full-time licensed counselors and five part-time interns, according to Rice. The recommendation states that for every 1,000 to 1,500 students, there should be one counselor.
In addition to their counseling duties, counselors engage in various outreach programs with Residential Life, document their sessions and cover crisis counseling hours.
Rice said the most common issues the Counseling Center sees include involving anxiety, stress, depression, relationship problems and self-esteem.
Since the early 2000s, BU has also had one on-campus psychiatrist, Fiore-Conte said. Ramona Mazzeo, the current campus psychiatrist, has been at the University since 2006. During her time here, she has seen her campus workload increase from one day a week to four days, according to Fiore-Conte.
Rice said that BU has seen an increase in the number of people seeking counseling, which is in tune with national trends.
“There are lots of hypotheses about that ranging from more students getting to college with mental health issues with medication, but still needing continued support while they’re in college,” Rice said.
National and University statistics show more women seek health services than men do, Fiore-Conte said.
“I was really ready and open to dealing with my problems,” a sophomore said. “Boys don’t do that, they smoke weed or something whereas girls are more willing to discuss their feelings and talk about them.”
The sophomore said she thinks even for students without a critical health issue, counseling can be helpful.
“Regardless of whether or not I have a problem, it’s kind of fun just to be able to talk about my life to an outside source,” she said. “I don’t think I need weekly counseling, but I don’t want to lose my spot and I want it to actually make a change in me, so I want to stay with it.”
THE COUNSELING EXPERIENCE
A typical visit to the Counseling Center puts some students in an uncomfortable position — the office is located in a central position near the Greek Life flags in the Glenn G. Bartle Library.
“Not that counseling is something that people should be embarrassed of, but it’s also not something that should be broadcasted,” said the senior who was discouraged from counseling. “I don’t think it should be located in the center of the University where everyone goes. It just makes me anxious.”
Once in the office, students meet with counselors who each have different methods, but most initial sessions start in a similar manner. Students are asked about their life, the main characters in their story and why they are seeking counseling.
The second session is generally when people start to delve into the concerns that led them to seek counseling, by attempting to find the origin of their issues and how to cope.
One student just got off the waiting list and will be having her second appointment this week.
“After our first session, I already felt better and she gave me good homework to help me start working on my anxiety,” the sophomore said. “I’m not sure if we’re going to work well together, but it seems like we got off on the right foot.”
Another sophomore said her overall experience at the Counseling Center has been beneficial, as she has had more than 10 visits and is currently on the waiting list for more sessions.
A counselor prioritizes appointments based on assessments of the severity of individual cases. Rice said, however, that the Center never leaves students with no one to turn to.
Instead, they provide suggestions that include visiting a counselor at the center’s daily crisis hours from 2 to 4 p.m. or joining the waiting list. Students may also be referred to an off-campus counselor.
“We have no control over the demand, but we try to meet it in the best way we can,” Fiore-Conte said. “If we can’t necessarily meet a student’s need at a given moment, we will assist them in getting timely care.”
The waiting list, which Rice said is common for college counseling centers, generally has anywhere from 10 to 20 people on it, especially during peak times like the middle of the semester. Most students on the list are able to meet with a counselor to receive ongoing services, according to Rice.
However, waiting lists are problematic for those working on long-term problems.
A BU junior said that by the time she mustered the confidence to visit the Counseling Center, she was suffering emotionally and required immediate help.
“A lot of emotional issues manifest themselves within our psyche, and if a student comes into the Counseling Center requesting to see someone on an emergency appointment, that person is clearly in need of some intense help not just that day,” the junior said.
She added that the Counseling Center’s inability to take on patients is a liability for the University.
“I reached out for help because I was helpless and three counselors and a few months later, I’m finally being seen by someone regularly,” she said. “That doesn’t take away from all the heartache that I had from dealing with this on my own though.”
The senior worried that the system can lead to a lack of personal connections.
“I understand the purpose of the wait-list, but it’s completely unrealistic in terms of making personal progress in counseling,” the senior said. “No student wants to tell four different therapists the reason why they’re seeking services.”
Referrals to off-campus counselors is not the Counseling Center’s first choice, but it is sometimes necessary, according to Fiore-Conte.
“If the demand is too high though, we want to be sure that students get the services they need, and that sometimes includes referrals off campus,” Fiore-Conte said.
The junior told Pipe Dream that she sought out counseling the first week back because she thought it gave her the best chance of getting in.
“I was given a second appointment, under duress, and I was referred to an off-campus provider,” she said.
A referral off campus, to her, shows that the Counseling Center is not meeting the student need and is “completely unacceptable.”
“Freshmen are not allowed to have cars on campus and many students do not have that privilege of having a car,” she said. “Informing students that a counselor is in walking distance may make sense in Florida, but in Binghamton, where it’s below freezing the majority of the year, does not provide an environment where a 20-minute walk is a viable option.”