Don’t “Shrink” My Situation: Students Struggle to Get the Mental Health Care They Need at UNC

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Counseling care model courtesy of unco.edu

Christopher Ashworth is a third-year student at the University of Northern Colorado, who lives at the top floor of Turner Hall and likes to play video games with his friends across the world, online. To his friends, Ashworth says he is known for his dry sense of humor, but ever since he could remember, Ashworth has had to deal with depressive thoughts. About a week into his freshman year in 2017, Ashworth failed his first calculus test and found himself dealing with some incredibly dark, depressing thoughts. 

“I had always struggled with depression as a teenager, but, like, my family didn’t believe in therapy, so I never really received help for it. So, I thought it would be good for me to, you know, actually receive professional help,” Ashworth said. 

The professionals Ashworth reached out to were at the University of Northern Colorado counseling center, UNC’s answer to the mounting mental health crisis among college students. According to their website, the counselling center offers help from licensed professional counselors, licensed psychiatrists and doctoral students. Any UNC student enrolled in classes can receive this help for free and the university often advertises it as an essential step in self-care for incoming freshmen. 

When Ashworth reached out to the center in September of 2017, he was pleasantly surprised when he was able to get a consultation right away. The student working at the front desk assured Ashworth that, if he qualified, they would set up a time for him to receive his individual sessions, but after his consultation was over, Ashworth wasn’t given a time for his individual counselling sessions. He was not even given an offer.

“They shipped me off to group therapy. They said they’d love to help me, but that spots were limited for individual counseling. So, they said if I tried group therapy and it was clear I needed more help or didn’t like it or something, that they’d set me up with individual counseling. It was pretty disappointing,” Ashworth said. 

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Ashworth went to group therapy, where he spent more time doing art crafts and meditation then receiving counseling. When the discussion would open to participants, over 30 people were all vying desperately to get the help they needed, and Ashworth said he felt as if it was impossible to receive the counseling he needed. 

“The energy just felt off. I was anxious the whole time. Everyone had problems and people weren’t, like, getting the time we really needed to discuss our problems. Some people were in some bad places. And the rest of us felt like we couldn’t speak up because our problems weren’t as bad,” Ashworth said. 

After a yearlong battle with depression and burnout, Ashworth dropped out of UNC in October of 2018. 

“I dropped out after my freshman year. I only just came back to finish up, but my mental health was affecting my schoolwork. I was too depressed. I never went to class. I wonder if it would have helped to see a counselor, and maybe get on some medication,” Ashworth said. 

The University of Northern Colorado Counselling Center is advertised as the solution for students struggling with their mental health. The center uses a stepped care model to determine what kind of care a student might benefit from best. 

Initial consultations are given by the team of doctoral interns. The interns then recommend the care on the stepped model that they believe is best for students. The center has five different group therapies, one of which is only a six-week workshop on generalized anxiety. Individualized care by licensed professionals is naturally hard to come by, since the center only has three counselors and eight psychologists, but it’s not impossible. UNC fourth year student Anna Rosenthal has received help from the center since 2018. She said that sessions with her counselor last 50 minutes, but that getting these sessions set up wasn’t as simple as getting a consultation by an intern. 

“I was in group therapy for a little while. I had dark thoughts that landed me in the mental hospital. After that, they put me in individual counseling and referred me to a psychiatrist. But that’s how I got out of group therapy,” Rosenthal said. 

Rosenthal says the care she receives at the clinic is helpful for her mental health, and she looks forward to her weekly sessions. But if sessions last for 50 minutes each, that means at most only 440 students can see a therapist weekly, assuming that each therapist works eight hours a day, five days a week. UNC has a population of 12,260 students. Where do the other 11,820 students go if they want to receive the same kind of top-notch individual counseling that Rosenthal receives? 

The answer lies in a gem, hidden in the maze-like hallways of McKee Hall. Behind the unassuming wooden door of room 247 is UNC’s Psychological Services Clinic. The Psychological Services Clinic trains doctoral and graduate students by allowing them to run their own individual sessions under the supervision of their advisor, who is a licensed psychologist. These services cost $75 for a semester, but they are open to community members as well as students. Counselors are trained to help individuals, groups, couples, families and even children. A graduate student counselor from psychological services said anyone who calls and pays will be placed with their own, individual counselor based on an entry survey that assesses their independent situations. 

“I have a quite a few students I counsel individually. The center services hundreds of students from different backgrounds, races and sexualities. We have counselors whose studies specialize in all those situations and more. We welcome anyone,” the graduate student said. 

 Both Rosenthal and Ashworth said that they were not referred to psychological services in their initial consultation at the counseling center and were unaware of its existence at all, even though the counseling center step chart says they consider referral to the psychological services center. Ryan Howell, a third year psychology major, said he found out about the program through his major and that the services he’s received there for the past two years have been a life saver. 

“I dropped out of college and was able to continue getting the help I needed through it. My counselors have all been life savers and I’m so thankful that they’re here for me,” Howell said. 

Multiple attempts were made to reach out to the counseling center for comment, but at the time of press, the center has not reached out to comment. Why they do not refer students to the Psychological Services Center remains unclear. 

To set up an appointment with the Psychological Services Clinic, call them at (970) 351-1645. If you are struggling with a mental health emergency, please dial 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800)-273-8255.

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