THE WAITING GAME

THE WAITING GAME

One University of Maryland student has waited more than 22 days to see a therapist. She's not alone.

Tom Hausman/The Diamondback

Published on November 23, 2015

Adrienne Baer sat on a set of steps facing McKeldin Mall, wearing a gray University of Maryland sweatshirt and holding her planner open on her lap.

Last month alone, Baer lost a high school friend and two grandparents and learned one of her best friends had been raped at gunpoint.

She pointed to Oct. 30, the day she first mustered the courage to reach out to the University Health Center for help coping. It was now Nov. 11.

“It’s hard for people to call. … I didn’t want to call because I wasn’t ready to admit that I needed to see somebody,” the junior information systems major said.

With staffing and funding for the health center’s mental health services and the Counseling Center lagging behind student demand, Baer has become a part of the backlog.

On a campus of more than 38,000 students, the health center’s mental health services employs seven psychotherapists who offer one-on-one counseling support, while the Counseling Center has 14 psychologists on staff this year.

The current staff is not equipped to meet student needs, said Marta Hopkinson, mental health services director. Even with about 50 to 90 appointments a day, students with nonurgent cases often must wait two to three weeks before meeting with a psychotherapist.

“There is more demand for psychotherapy than we have available,” Hopkinson said. “We all serve everyone who is in an urgent or emergency situation, defined as suicidal or homicidal or if they’re having panic attacks or they’re not functioning.”

As of Sunday, Baer was still waiting for an appointment.

“Through this whole thing,” she said, “I still have not actually talked to a therapist.”

(Tom Hausman/The Diamondback)

DROWNING, BY THE NUMBERS

When Baer told the health center she didn’t think she was experiencing an emergency, she said she was immediately transferred to the Counseling Center, which told her its earliest opening was Nov. 12.

Furious with the response, Baer said she wrote a heated email to the health center, stating it had not made clear what constituted an emergency situation.

“At the end [of the email] I told them what was happening, and I was like, ‘I don’t know if you consider this an emergency or not, but what the f—,’ basically,” Baer said.

The health center’s mental health services promptly responded and set up an appointment with Baer for Nov. 3.

However, Baer said she walked into a mess — a triage appointment and a phone intake with the Center for Healthy Families, another counseling service on the campus that wouldn’t be able to see her for triage until Nov. 12.

A health center employee told her mental health services was only seeing people who were actively suicidal, Baer said.

“It’s really frustrating when you know you’re in a place where you’re reaching out for help,” she said.

The mental health services department has 18 staff members, seven of whom are psychotherapists who can offer one-on-one counseling support, Hopkinson said.

Sharon Kirkland-Gordon, the Counseling Center director, said its Counseling Service — the primary unit for addressing students’ counseling needs on the campus — has four doctoral interns and 14 psychologists, although it aims to fill three vacancies by the spring semester to bump that count to 17.

“This year, because we’re operating without those three positions filled, we definitely feel a stress,” Kirkland-Gordon said. “When the vacancies are filled, I think it will help.”

In the past two fiscal years, the university amassed a $44.8 million increase in funding from tuition and fees, due in part to general rate increases and the new differential pricing model for business, engineering and computer science majors, said Paul Dworkis, associate vice president for finance.

mentalhealthfunding_final

However, funding allocated toward student services — a university budget category of which the Counseling Center and health center are subdivisions — decreased by $245,908.

The decrease is a result of a roughly 2 percent reduction in overall state funding, the primary source of student services funding, Dworkis said.

This fiscal year, student services received $53.4 million, or about 3 percent of the university’s $1.91 billion budget, according to university budget documents.

Mental health services represented about $860,000 of the health center’s $7 million budget, and the Counseling Center, excluding its Disability Support Service division, received $2.44 million, said Daniel Catalano, senior business manager for the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs.

“There are several issues on this university’s campus that the administration does not prioritize, unfortunately, and mental health is one of them,” said Katherine Swanson, a junior government and politics major. “That’s not just a University of Maryland issue, but a nationwide issue for all college campuses.”

Katherine Swanson's routine counseling sessions came to an end because of a Counseling Center policy that only allows students to see a therapist eight times. (Tom Hausman/The Diamondback)

‘YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN NOW’

For Swanson, her routine counseling sessions came to an end because of a Counseling Center policy that only allows students to see a therapist eight times.

“They didn’t refer anyone for me,” said Swanson, who was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder the summer before her sophomore year. “I couldn’t keep seeing the person at the Counseling Center who already knew all of my information and knew everything I’d been talking to them about. I just had to stop seeing them, and that, to me, was upsetting.”

When she came to school sophomore year and began to fall into depression, she said the Counseling Center sessions helped her and gave her someone to talk to. However, she noted she hasn’t been able to find another therapist in the Washington area since her sessions concluded in fall 2014.

“To have you see someone for eight weeks and then say, ‘OK, you’re on your own now!’ is almost counterproductive for treatment,” Swanson said.

The eight-session limit is “not a hard and fast rule,” and in certain instances the center will offer a few additional sessions, according to the Student Affairs website. A student is eligible again one year from the date of his or her last counseling session, Kirkland-Gordon wrote in an email, and is also eligible for unlimited psychotherapeutic group sessions.

The Counseling Center and the health center’s mental health services often work closely together and share mutual clients, especially those in need of medication or severe cases that require hospitalization, Kirkland-Gordon said. She added the Counseling Center offers a variety of therapy focuses, ranging from academic issues to emotional distress.

Wait times for nonemergency patients vary depending on the time of year, with some “peak times” — between mid-October and Thanksgiving break — mostly resulting in a longer wait for services, Kirkland-Gordon said. But students experiencing emergencies can often be seen immediately or within a few hours, she said.

Baer said she’s afraid for the students who are on the brink but don’t have the courage to say so.

“If someone’s at the end of their rope and they’re told they can’t see someone, I don’t know what that means; I don’t know where that goes,” Baer said. “People react to things differently.”

University President Wallace Loh pledged in June that the estimated $500,000 a year from alcohol revenues would be earmarked for student services, such as mental health counseling, sexual assault prevention and responsible drinking programs. (Alexander Jonesi/The Diamondback)

PUSHING FOR MORE FUNDING

When Student Government Association President Patrick Ronk pushed last year for the sale of alcoholic beverages at Byrd Stadium and Xfinity Center, he said he made it clear that the proceeds should be largely designated for mental health services on the campus.

In a June 2015 email to the campus community, university President Wallace Loh pledged the estimated $500,000 a year from alcohol revenues would be earmarked for student services, such as mental health counseling, sexual assault prevention and responsible drinking programs.

“In an era of constrained budgets, the student demand for these services exceeds the available funding,” Loh wrote.

The university recently spent about $150,000 out of the student affairs office budget for the six-week alcohol-free nightlife program Terps After Dark, said Linda Clement, vice president of student affairs. The decision wasn’t completely in line with SGA members’ expectations, Ronk said.

“I don’t think it was a bad investment of the money — Terps After Dark was successful,” Ronk said. “But it wasn’t exactly what we’d had in mind.”

With football season coming to a close, alcohol sales at Byrd Stadium “are underwhelming; they’re not meeting any of our projections,” Clement said, noting the university does not expect to hit the $500,000 goal and still has to incur the additional material and labor costs that come with selling alcohol.

By the end of basketball season, Clement said the hope is the university will be able to amass enough money from sales to cover the cost of Terps After Dark and fund additional programs.

“It’s an unknown right now,” Clement admitted. “There’s so many more games for basketball … and the team is expected to do well, which will keep up fan interest, so maybe we’ll fill up Xfinity and meet our goals.”

Until then, it’s become a waiting game, Swanson said. In the meantime, she said the SGA’s Health and Wellness Committee began work this month to design a one-stop online resource to help students locate various mental health services available on the campus.

Despite Loh’s initial pledge, Swanson and Ronk said they find it concerning that the university’s commitment to allocating the alcohol revenue to areas such as mental health services is not entirely fleshed out.

“It is a little bit worrying that there isn’t just this, ‘X amount is going to this, X amount is going to this,’ even if it’s just a ratio,” Ronk said.

Hopkinson and Kirkland-Gordon said their respective departments have not been involved in any direct conversations with the university at this time about how alcohol sales could benefit mental health services.

(Tom Hausman/The Diamondback)

NOTHING PERSONAL

While Baer said she is frustrated with the communication roadblocks and scheduling processes the health center and Counseling Center employ, she said she understands that it is not personal.

“I don’t want it to seem like I’m unhappy with the health center in particular; it’s more the network, the transfers and having to deal with repeating yourself so many times and seeing a new person, telling them what happened,” Baer said.

Brittni Fine, a junior psychology major, said she has been using the health center’s mental health services for more than a year and is always treated respectfully.

“I was having a pretty rough time for a while, and I had been nervous about seeking help for it. … I finally decided to take a chance with the health center,” Fine said. “They put me with a therapist, and it’s been a year now; it’s been working great. … They never pry, they never overstep any boundaries. Overall, it was a rewarding experience.”

Fine said she was able to see a therapist every week or two last year, depending on how busy the center was. This year, she’s only had two appointments because “they did such a great job that I don’t feel that I need more,” she said.

 

Despite the demand, “staff is working really, really hard to accommodate all students,” Kirkland-Gordon said.

The mental health and counseling staff want to help students, Baer said. But sometimes, they just can’t.

“They said, ‘We understand that you need help; there’s literally nothing we can do,’” Baer said. “They said, ‘Yes, this is serious; we’d love to help you. But we simply don’t have spots.’”

 

Taylor Swaak is an assistant news editor and senior staff writer covering the University System of Maryland for The Diamondback. She can be reached at tswaakdbk@gmail.com and at @tswaak27 on Twitter.

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