ECAPS overwhelmed by student demand


The Emerson Counseling and Psychological Services Office in the Union Bank Building.

By Maya Gacina

Freshman Lia Kim applied to Emerson in part because she heard the campus had less stigma around mental health. She said her family is Korean-American, a culture she said validates only physical pain as a reason to receive treatment.

For years, Kim said she asked her family for therapy. She was hospitalized after a depressive episode her senior year of high school and started taking medication for her anxiety last summer.

Last semester, Kim went to Emerson Counseling and Psychological Services for two sessions to receive help with prescription renewal. Her counselor emailed her a list of off-campus therapists but did not provide phone numbers or addresses to contact. She called some of the offices, but no one picked up. ECAPS never followed up with her, she said. Kim said she’s off her medication now, out of personal preference but also because she wasn’t able to find a provider through ECAPS.

“The whole system of therapy and psychiatry and stuff was new to me, and I’m sure new to a lot of people,” Kim said. “Just getting emailed a list of people I could contact but having no way of knowing how to contact them was daunting. I could have tried harder, but it would have been nice to have a bit more assistance.”

ECAPS Director Elise Harrison said she saw a 40 percent increase of students using counseling services from 2012 to 2018. She attributes this to a growing lack of stigma surrounding mental health care on-campus.

Senior Carly Wickham, president of Emerson’s chapter of mental health advocacy organization Active Minds, said she’s seen stigma lessen in her four years at the college. Wickham was formerly the Beacon’s photo editor.

“The more we get to talk about it, the more normalized it will become on-campus,” Wickham said.

The college employs 11 full-time and three part-time counselors. The International Association of Counseling Services recommends about half that for the size of the student body.  But Harrison said therapists have almost no flexibility in their schedules as more students request services.

Senior Katharine Johnson said most Emerson students she knows lead busy lives and suffer mentally because of it. Johnson co-chaired the Emerson College Out of the Darkness Campus Walk.

“It’s crazy because everybody I talk to has at least 10 clubs they’re a part of or they’re just so invested in their art,” Johnson said.

IACS, ECAPS’ accreditor, recommends one counselor for every 1,000 to 1,500 students. Emerson’s ratio is one for every 670 students.

As of Monday, Harrison said 677 undergraduate and graduate students used a service at ECAPS this year, which is 14 more students recorded than the same time last year. Each session runs for about 45 minutes.

“I think it’s a good thing that more people are recognizing they can get help, and that the counseling center is a place to come to,” Harrison said. “Every time we’ve added more people, the numbers of students who have come in has increased. But you get to a point where there are just so many hours in the day.”

In the 2017 Emerson360 Community Climate Survey, only one out of 10 counselors responded positively to the statement, “My department has adequate staff to achieve our goals.”

Harrison said ECAPS aims to meet with more students, which requires more office space and more counselors.

ECAPS staffs 14 people, but the number of offices allows for 10.

“We don’t even have any room really for other counselors,” Associate Director of ECAPS Patricia Challan said in a phone interview. “Not every staff [member] is here every day, and they’re not all full-time, but not everybody necessarily has their own office.”

Since last year, ECAPS has held 20- to 30-minute sessions, or triage appointments, for students who need immediate assistance. Follow-up sessions still operate by appointment and the wait time averages one to two weeks depending on the student and counselors’ schedule.

“For me, it wasn’t that difficult to get an appointment,” freshman Madison Tasker said. “[The counselors] seem qualified, but maybe more in a general sense and not on specific issues. I think there’s room for improvement because not everyone can afford to get therapy.”

Vice President and Dean for Campus Life James Hoppe helped open three full-time positions at ECAPS in the past year and increased the department’s program budget by $10,000.

“My vision for ECAPS is that it’s very important and we need to expand their services,” Hoppe said in an interview. “To get this much of an increase in resource in 18 months, I think is pretty good, so my sense is that if we’re able to reasonably demonstrate the need, I’m confident the college would support that.”

The three hires include two staff psychologists, Priscilla Cheung and Robin Li, and a postdoctoral fellow starting in the 2018-2019 school year. Harrison said she feels supported by the administration, but said budget constraints may hold some expansion back.

The college applied to JED Campus, an initiative designed to help guide schools’ mental health policies, in February. ECAPS received strong encouragement from JED to increase on-campus mental health training, from the Dining Center service workers to the students themselves, Harrison said.

“[JED’S] philosophy is that it is not just a counseling issue for students who have mental health concerns, it is a campus-wide concern, and everyone contributes to positive mental health,” she said. “We already do some but they would like us to do even more … so that anyone that’s in contact with students has some good training about how to respond when a student’s having a difficult time.”

Students Kim and Johnson both found Violence Prevention and Response to have greater availability for walk-ins. VPR specializes in helping those with trauma, but Johnson said seeing and talking to the same therapist every time helped her more than the rotating therapists familiar to ECAPS.

VPR Director Melanie Matson and Survivor Advocate Greta Spoering make up the two-person VPR team. Neither set a time limit when meeting with students, staff, or faculty.

“Hopefully, across the Emerson community, we are encouraging folks to connect with who they feel comfortable connecting with,” Matson said.