Students Seek Counseling Center Alternatives

Ben Caldwell

When they need a listening ear, most students view the Counseling Center as their first resource. But does the Counseling Center have enough support for everyone? There are alternative resources on campus and in the community, but unfortunately not as many students seem to take advantage of them.

Last semester many students who wanted to take advantage of the Counseling Center couldn’t, because the waiting list was simply too long. Assistant Director of the Counseling Center Tracee Anderson confirmed they have had to turn students away, but also suggested there are alternative solutions.

“Sometimes students want to go off campus. That’s just an elective gesture â€¦ a decision on their part. And we often give students, especially if they can’t get in right away for ongoing counseling â€¦ a name in the community, and they can make a decision whether they want to follow up with that or wait until they can get in to see one of us,” said Anderson.

Students who do not want to wait a week or a month for an open appointment slot can turn to a multitude of resources in the community. In order to find the right counselor for them, students have to undertake some research on their own to determine which counselors’ specialties apply to them, as well as navigate the wide variety of hours of availability and price ranges.

Junior Sarah Glass, co-president of Whitman’s branch of the national mental health awareness organization Active Minds, finds this stumbling block problematic. She claims that combing the community for counseling alternatives is more than just an inconvenience for students.

“It’s already hard enough, from the people I’ve talked to and in my own experience, to get yourself to the Counseling Center and to a place where you want to look into talking to a complete stranger. That’s already a hard enough place to be, and then [it gets worse] when you get there and you’re turned down, or you’re told, ‘We can see you in a month,'” said Glass.

This is a major motivational setback, according to Glass, especially for students who have found it hard to seek counseling in the first place. For those individuals, mustering the courage to turn to the outside community may be the last thing they want to do. And paying by the hour for weekly sessions is hardly affordable for students with tuition and loans to pay off.

On the other hand, Anderson points out that the Counseling Center does offer different therapy or personal growth groups from time to time. In addition, the Director of the Counseling Center Thacher Carter says that there are other resources on campus outside of the Counseling Center to which students may turn.

“Residence life staff are available, academic resources, faculty and staff who mentor students and the Student Affairs office [are] a few,” he said in an email.

However, these options seemed to do little to reduce the waiting list last semester. If students feel the support on campus is insufficient, Anderson suggests the support groups at the YWCA as a free community alternative, but though the YWCA provides valuable resources, their focus is primarily on sexual assault, domestic violence and trauma. What about the students with counseling concerns outside of such issues? To which of the dozens of clinicians in the community should they go?

“I have a few friends who see counselors in town … but there isn’t much that I’ve heard positive things about,” said Glass. “People that have actually gone outside of Whitman into the Walla Walla community, who have tried it, haven’t had great things to say about it.”

According to Anderson, the Counseling Center has a list of 17 psychologists, psychotherapists and counselors in the Walla Walla area who have been vetted by Whitman’s counselors and who are confirmed to have credentials and qualifications up to Counseling Center standards. Counselors may refer students who can’t schedule appointments to the list after meeting them once and getting a sense of their counseling needs.

There is also a list posted on the Counseling Center page on the Whitman website with the contact information of 40 counselors in the community, taken directly from the phone book.

“We have not had interactions specifically with all of those places or people,” she said.

Even with all of that information about local counselors available, the issues of price and inconvenience remain.

“I feel like the little support that the Counseling Center has given to students who they can’t fit [into their schedule] is not helpful because, as college students, we don’t want to have to go look around into the greater community. We’re at Whitman, we’re paying all this money, and this is where the help should be, if we need it,” said Glass. She admits, though, that it is unrealistic to imagine the Counseling Center can see every student who needs help.

Fortunately, Glass believes there is another possible resource on campus that could help lighten the Counseling Center’s load if students used it. According to Glass, the Peer Listeners group is designed to be an alternative for times when the Counseling Center is overbooked.

The group’s members receive training about active listening skills, a baseline education about different kinds of mental illness and how to be more constructive and supportive than the untrained friends and peers students tend to talk to when they can’t see a counselor.

“But it just hasn’t really been supported that much by the Counseling Center actually, which has been really frustrating,” she said. She added that the reason why remains unclear.

Glass hopes the Counseling Center will consider referring students on the waitlist to the Peer Listeners on a case-by-case basis, depending on the severity and type of issues with which they’re dealing. She says there has been some dialogue with the Counseling Center about this, and some progress is being made.

Carter confirmed that the Counseling Center is working with the Peer Listeners group to connect its members with students who need help, but cautioned that they cannot act as a stand-in for trained therapists.

“I think that Peer Listening and Active Minds are good supports for our community and know the resources on campus to refer students in need. I do not think they are a substitute for counseling or therapy when needed,” said Carter.

Still, Glass is optimistic that peers can play an important role. She says that Whitman’s Active Minds group is looking into transitioning from their affiliation with its national organization to something more peer support oriented.

“We find there’s a greater need for peer support than general awareness [on campus],” she said.

In the future, Glass says she would like to organize the group into more specialized sections that could be trained to better address issues like sexual assault, eating disorders, anxiety and depression more directly. She hopes campus organizations can continue to qualify themselves to help reduce the waiting list at the Counseling Center, and that counselors will continue referring students to support groups on campus whenever appropriate and possible.