How WNY college counseling centers are adapting to what they see

Sep 10, 2019

There’s a diversity of colleges in Western New York. Community colleges, private schools, larger SUNY campuses and more. Each student base faces unique mental health challenges in combination with overlapping issues prevalent on each campus. In this series, WBFO’s Nick Lippa reports what some Western New York colleges’ biggest concerns are when treating mental health.


Counseling centers are a more utilized resource now than they were decades ago. And each one is dealing with similar problems in different environments.

GCC

“One of the biggest things we’re dealing with are drug and alcohol abuse,” said Genesee Community College Dean of Students Patty Chaya.

She started 18 years ago in a different position, when things she said were much different.

“When I first started I think throughout the years I noticed that students are coming to counseling for things like, ‘Oh I have a roommate problem,’ or, ‘I’m breaking up with my boyfriend.’ And now it’s more intense,” she said. “‘Oh I’m in a domestic violence relationship,’ or, ‘I have an issue because somebody sexually assaulted me or I was harassed sexually.’” 

GCC has become much more plan oriented. This is highlighted by their approach to suicide prevention. 

“If you’re going to go back tonight to the residence hall, what are you going to do if you start thinking about this or that? Our counselor works very closely with the students and getting those plans together,” she said. “But it’s when they can’t come up with a plane or they can’t commit that they are going to use the plan is when we really have to step in and make sure we are taking care of that student properly.”

With only one full time counselor at the moment, GCC is looking to maximize the resources they currently have.

“It would be great if we had more mental health counselors. I think every college in America would want more. But we have to be realistic about what we can and can’t do. So this is why we’re going to TAO (Therapy Assist Online) this year, the online service. It will bridge the gap in times when students may not be able to get to a counselor and actually just kind of work on their own problems and maybe empower themselves with self-confidence which maybe they haven’t been prepared to do when they were in high school,” she said.

TAO isn’t brand new, but Assistant Dean for Student Services Monica Romeo said it’s new for a lot of college counseling centers like GCC. 

“A lot of colleges are turning to step care models. And TAO is part of the step care model, where you’re kind of looking at all the students and saying, ‘What does each student need individually?’ Instead of the traditional therapy model where, ‘Oh lets come in every week and chat about what’s going on and how we’re going to address it.’ Now we are seeing students for one or two sessions. We are going to assign them some TAO modules to work on and then come back in three weeks to a month, and let’s talk about how things went, what worked, what didn’t work, what can we tweak. Let’s still get some new modules for you to work on over the next few weeks and then let’s regroup and work on that again. And that frees up more time for us to work with students who might need to be seen weekly. Most students don’t need to be seen weekly,” Romeo said.

A challenge GCC has that isn’t extreme for colleges like UB and Buffalo State? Transportation. When you are located in a rural community, that’s to be expected. GCC is still utilizing what they have.

“Trying to help students understand the bus system,” Romeo said. “What can we link with Uber or Lyft? Is there the taxi service? Who can we partner with so that when our students are struggling we can get them off campus? Now the immediate care in the area has been really helpful in terms of offering students a discount. And they’ll call an Uber for the student if the student has a health issue that is impacting them so that the student can at least be seen in a quick and safe manner and then get them back to campus.”

Having a large commuter, online class population, and even some high schoolers can make reaching students hard. 

“Because we’re in four counties, we may not be able to actually physically to get to all the counties. But we’re also looking at, can we do some type of crisis counseling or counseling of some sort over ZOOM,” Chaya. “So we are in one location and the students are in another location and how can we perfect that system better?”

GCC also has a contract with Rochester Regional Health. 

When it comes to training faculty, they have PAD sessions—professional activity days that happen before each semester begins. Romeo offers sessions on QPR (Question Persuade and Refer) to help people who are not mental health professionals learn how to intervene with a student in crisis.

“And I also provide sessions on just recognizing mental health concerns in your classroom. Or how do I work with a student with autism in my classroom or how do I work with a student with schizophrenia in my classroom? We try as much as we can to educate our community and then we’ll also work individually with faculty,” Romeo said. “Faculty or staff will come to us and say, ‘Oh my gosh. This just happened. What do I do?’ So we’ll brainstorm with the faculty or staff and figure out the best way to work with that student.”

Romeo worked as Director of Counseling Services at Niagara University and did fill in counseling at UB in the past. She said many of the students are experiencing similar issues, but what can change drastically is the type of students at colleges.

“Of course UB is a much more diverse population. They have students that are going for four-year degrees or students who are getting PHD’s in astrophysics. There’s such a wide range of students that you’re going to see. Plus just working with the different cultures,” Romeo said. 

“I think here, even though we do have a diverse culture, maybe it’s a little bit less intense in terms of I have this student that’s getting their PHD in this really difficult program and how do I help them manage that plus the cultural concerns that they have because they just came here from whatever country and all they know about us is what they saw on TV,” she laughed.

In the future, Chaya wants to divert more resources to helping students adjusting to their campus life in Batavia.

“Students coming in from New York City that find themselves here and they have anxiety because they have cows living across the street from them,” Chaya said. “For those international students that come in and they haven’t been well prepared because they don’t speak the language as well and they’re living in an area where they are hearing slang.” 

There’s a more holistic way of approaching student wellness and Chaya recognizes that.

“They’re sad because they’re in this domestic violence relationship and they’re homeless and they haven’t had anything to eat. All the issues continue to build and we as the college community have to service them. So we have a number of offices and we are trying to collaborate more,” Chaya said. “We’re working with our housing department and with our disabilities office and with other departments locally so we can actually find some food for that student from the food pantry or walk them down to the health services office and actually get them the service they need for their anxiety or because they are feeling sick or they have a sore throat. It’s a holistic way of looking at a student in terms of keeping them here and really working with them well.”

ECC

In downtown Buffalo, Erie Community College deals with a problem many others in the region face-- homelessness. City Campus Dean of Students Petrina Hill says it’s on the rise at ECC.

“We have to really consider that community colleges are microcosms of what is going on in the world,” she said. 

And what Hill sees in addition to homelessness is substance abuse and food insecurity.

“We like to call those issues life happens. Things that occur outside of the classroom,” Hill said.

ECC has a counseling center on each of their three campuses, but they are very small. 

“We have no more than 30 counselors college wide,” Hill said. “We realize that we are not equipped to deal with students that have these issues in the manner in which we should be.” 

Their counseling centers focus on career services, academic support, and personal life issues. If more services are needed, staff will refer students to a place like Horizons Health Services.

“And then they would prescribe and would have opportunities where either they would work with the students themselves, or refer students to more in depth care that is needed,” Hill said.

Now ECC has a MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) in place with Horizons Health Services, which they’ve had in place since March of 2019. 

“Prior to that we referred students to a number of different places and it was an informal agreement. But we saw given the increase in the amount of students who need mental health services that there was a need for a more formal partnership and referral process,” Hill said.

ECC has also made a big move electornically. They’ve implemented Maxient, a student concerns online form that students and faculty can fill it out. This is a big upgrade in terms of identifying students struggling with mental health on campus.

“Prior to that we had a hard copy form that would be faxed in to the dean’s office. And then the dean would be charged with pulling together security, the nurse, a counselor, and the executive vice president for student affairs. And then we would work on whatever cases until they were resolved,” Hill said.

Among all those issues, Provost Douglas Scheidt said financial stress (which was the most googled mental health issue in New York last year) remains one of ECC’s biggest issues. 

“During the course of the semester, when they have to get their schoolwork done, they still may need to figure out how they are going to pay for where they are living. How they are eating? How they are going to get to campus? A lot of those expenses of life will come in to their week to week, day to day concern. That is a stressor and all of those things are going to pull your focus away from your success at being academic and thereby your success at life,” Scheidt said. “We are aware that our students on any given day may be pulling change out of the sofa to buy lunch or put gas in the car.” 

Scheidt, who started at ECC this past January, draws from personal experience when he thinks about what faculty training or what an online form could do for a student struggling mentally.

“When I was in high school, I had a particularly challenging year for a whole variety of these reasons and I remember walking in. The assistant principal looked at me and she said, ‘In my office.’ She said, ‘What’s going on?’ I practically burst in to tears. ‘My car was stolen, my grandfather died, my parents are on the verge of divorce and I’m supposed to go to college in the next few months.’ But she saw me just walking in the door and she saw the look on my face and she thought, should I do something? And she did. And you can see there is a lot of people who will do that. They’ll be watching. They’ll be caring. They’ll be intervening. But other folks might not, they may think it might be none of their business and so forth,” Scheidt said. “When we have tools like policies or the team or the software package, we can make a more uniform experience of responding to people in our community who have a need, so we don’t have as many folks who might fall through the cracks.”

Scheidt said resources to support student’s success can be broken in to infrastructure and culture.

“So infrastructure is we have these counselors and we have this office to support. But there’s also a culture. At other institutions, which I will not name, I would hear from my colleagues things like, ‘That person doesn’t belong here,’ or, ‘that person doesn’t belong in college.’ And proudly my most recent institution and here had a real culture as well as infrastructure of student support,” Scheidt said. “One of the things I would say to folks is, ‘I’m sorry that decision was made in the admissions office. And once that decision is made, every single person at this college, every single person’s job is to support these students forward until they are no longer a student.’”

So where does ECC go next?

“Is the question, is our current short term intervention responsiveness holistically? Responding to any barrier to academic success, but then if it’s an ongoing issue than referring out to a partner like Horizons or some other partner. Is that model going to be the longer term model or will we adapt in to a different model? But the goal is to drive up the number of students who start here and are successful in getting their credential,” Scheidt said.

ECC is back to offering faculty mental health first aid training this year. That’s another similarity across most campuses, including Medaille. 

Medaille

Lynn Horne-Moyer, the Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology Chair said with Medaille’s campus being smaller, they can develop a closer relationship with their teachers.

“I’ve heard many faculty talk about having students in their office and because there has been that link, there’s been that faculty training, they’ll walk the student over to the counseling center, or they will pick up the phone in their office and makes sure the student gets an appointment,” she said. “I think that’s something, because of our size and the psychological mindedness of our faculty we’ve been able to do.”

Horne-Moyer said one of their main efforts this year is to make campus officials trauma informed.

“Our students have a very high number of what we call adverse experiences. If you ask people if they’ve suffered a trauma they might say no. But then when you find out what their experiences are? Yes they have. So they might grow up in an area where there’s been a lot of violence in the community. So if you’re awakened at night with gunshots going off, you might not even know that that’s a trauma, but we know that that’s an adverse experience that’s often going to have an impact on mental health and later learning.”

Medaille is one of several colleges that utilizes doctoral students on their campus. Horne-Moyer said they put together a program where doctoral students evaluated other students with needs impacting learning in the classroom like ADD or a learning disability over the past three years.

When accommodating the classroom, they pick up on mental health issues that are just as impactful.

“So maybe someone is having difficulty concentrating in class more because they are anxious or depressed. Maybe there is ADD, but maybe it really has to do with something else. Being able to add that evaluation piece has been a wonderful opportunity for our students because we’ve gotten a chance to do those types of assessments, but also has been good for Medaille in terms of being able to get more information about those students in treating them,”Horne-Moyer said.

Creating visibility across the campus is one of Counseling Services Director Rosalina Rizzo’s top priorities. She said a lot of things revolve around what the demand is on campus and then how do we get the services to the students.

“We’re involved in orientation, we’re involved in open houses. We’re involved in registration days to make sure the students are seeing us multiple times. We’re making sure that they understand how to make appointments,” Rizzo said. “We’re fully accessible online. So if students don’t want to call and make an appointment, because sometimes people are a little shy about making those phone calls, they can request an appointment online by completing the paperwork and then we contact them within two business days.”

Rizzo has been at Medaille since 2016. Her first year she said they saw a number of students and the students were coming in with case management kind of stuff. Just like ECC. Just like GCC. Counseling centers are filling in the holes when basic needs are not met.

“They were housing insecure. They were food insecure. They were lots of needs that weren’t being met. I was spending a lot of time doing a lot of linkage to our community resources. I feel like we’re very lucky here in Buffalo. We have a lot of community resources here. To tap into that, I presented to the President in the cabinet (of Medaille) my concerns. I felt like they were very responsive and they offered a full time position for a counselor/case manager who we call our student advocate. And so she does see students for sessions, but she also does that case management piece,” Rizzo said.

Now Medaille has a literal book of community resources that can be used to help link people to their needs. 

With greater student needs, the wellness center hired a full-time secretary for the first time ever. They started this past April. Rizzo said things were hard to manage in the past. 

“If somebody was calling for an appointment, their calls were coming through to my desk. And I’m in sessions, and then I got to call them back. So it’s not really the best way to reach out to people because you want to get them when they’re calling,” she said.

There’s also now a face to greet somebody at the Wellness Center. It’s something Rizzo really appreciates.

“You know if they walk in there’s somebody right there saying, ‘Come on in. Sign in. Who are you here to see? What do you need?’ And then she can get them linked up. If one of us isn’t available, it used the nurses would kind of have to cover for us,” Rizzo said. “So now she’s down there and she can say, ‘Rosalina is going to be available in 30 minutes. You just sit tight and then she’s going to come down and see you.”

Medaille also created a half-time position in the fall that will cover convenience hours during the evening and on Saturday. 

Rizzo said even though there is still a stigma, this generation is much more willing to talk about mental health concerns and address them early in their life.

“We often will get students that receive some sort of intervention in high school. They are like on campus. I got more calls this summer from students that are going to be starting in the fall saying, ‘I was seeing a counselor at my high school, and they said I should link up with someone when I get to college. When can I schedule an appointment?’ I’ve never had that before,” she said.

Rizzo said her goal for the upcoming year is to reach students she feels are often overlooked..

“I think often the students we have the hardest times reaching are the ones that are real ‘Type A’ students. They’re very good students. They’re academically really the students that push themselves and expect themselves to get really high grades. And also the student athletes. I think it’s really hard when you are seen as a ‘really good student’ or a ‘really good athlete’ to admit that you need some help,” she said.

A counseling center is no longer just a place for relationship troubles or annoyed roommates. They’re attempting to keep up with the rising need for services, which doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.