Mental Health: The Measure of Skidmore's Progress

Posted by Alex Hodor-Lee '14

Progress is happening at Skidmore College. Between Zankel, a new science center, geothermal projects and the development of student housing, Skidmore is becoming one of the most appealing colleges in the Northeast. And the numbers don't lie. Applications for this year's freshman class increased by an unprecedented 40%. The increase signals a new dimension of competition at Skidmore College. Last year Skidmore recorded its lowest-ever acceptance rate: 35 percent. The College accepted 42 percent of applicants in 2010.

That same year, The New York Times reported college students' skyrocketing mental health needs. The Times cited normalized recognition of trauma in today's younger generations, including bulimia, self-cutting and childhood sexual abuse. The Times also noted the proliferation of psychotropic drugs (used to treat mental disorders, such as depression, attention disorders and bipolar disorder). Both have allowed for a greater number of students to attend college. Decades ago, intense stigma and the absence of drugs to treat symptoms might have precluded students with mental disorders from attending Skidmore. This trend also means an increased demand for counseling programs on U.S. college campuses.

In 2009, the College proposed to house all health service programs-EMS, counseling, general medicine-under one roof in the newly-developed Sussman Village. But with the 2008 recession fresh in their minds, the Board of Trustees did not approve funding for the project.

"Long term, the Counseling Center and Health Services should be in a different space, so we will be looking at that down the line," President Glotzbach told Senate in an Oct. 11 open forum. "We do not have a plan right now for what we want to do with the counseling center. I am not sure that we can address that in the next four to five years."

The Counseling Center currently operates with four full-time therapists. While appointments are free, there is a yearly eight-session limit on the number of counseling sessions for students. Thus, therapists' schedules are tight but "if a student has an ongoing problem that requires counseling, they need to be outside of Skidmore, so that they can continue [therapy] outside of their Skidmore career." President Glotzbach told SGA.

President Glotzbach also noted the counseling shortage "is more a problem of perception. If people feel they need to go to the counseling center, they should go and trust that the eight-session limit will not be an issue."

The College has experienced a 45 percent increase in the number of students receiving therapy in the last nine years. "This year we've seen 28 percent more students," Dr. Julia Routbort, Director of the Counseling Center, told The Skidmore News. "As of October 10 we've seen 177 individual students." This time last year the Counseling Center had seen 138 students.

On average, each counselor holds approximately thirty, 45-minute clinical appointments in a 35-hour workweek, according to the center's statistics. The majority of Dr. Routbort's patients are suffering from depression or anxiety. Additionally, 70 percent of her patients are female. While it was once the case that most students seen were mostly freshmen, the recent surge of students is distributed more evenly across classes, according to Routbort.

It remains unclear why there is a surge in student therapy sessions. "As our student population gets to be more academically high-performing, in certain ways, students are putting a lot more pressure on themselves and so that shapes into it. If you've been highly anxious for a long time then it's pretty easy to get exhausted and depressed. College is not a great place in terms of people having stable sleeping and eating and substance use schedules, so that sort of starts to affect people's moods," Routbort said.

The Counseling Center received funding for a part-time, temporary therapist last week, one week after filing a request for one. The money came from a contingency fund (an institutional fund reserved for emergencies). Routbort described the Administration as "very responsive," though she had not been informed that expanding the counseling center was absent from the President's plans for the next four or five years. "Space and staffing issues are so tied together," Routbort said. Wand, without expanding the center's space, it will be difficult to upsize the staff to meet student needs.

Though understaffed, the Counseling Center provides a source of relief for many students who may speak to someone in the context of their Skidmore experience.

One female student, who chose to remain anonymous, emphasized the importance of having on-campus therapy resources. "It's just really helpful to have [the Counseling Center] on campus, because price-wise it's really good and accessible to everyone," she said, but admitted that the eight-session limit causes concern and has an attached socio-economic implication. "I will hit [the limit] eventually. I think that it's the kind of thing where I would have to talk to my parents about whether or not paying for it would be a priority for them, or me and how that would work."

This is a matter of values, according to Siena Tugendrajch '14, who insists administrators "don't understand the depth of why students go [to therapy]." Tugendrajch is the founder of Active Minds' Skidmore chapter. Active Minds is a non-profit organization that empowers students to speak openly about mental health to educate others and encourage seeking help, according to the organization's website.

Mental disorders on campus still have "so much stigma attached," Tugendrajch said in an interview with The Skidmore News. Students are deterred from making appointments for fear of being seen by other students lingering in and around Jonsson Tower, the College's most populated dorm, which also houses the Counseling Center.

Since fall 2005, the number of students electing to take a medical or personal leave of absence has increased by more than twenty-five percent. Last year more than 500 students went to the Counseling Center-meaning one in five students have received therapy at the Center. Of those students, 19 hit the eight-appointment ceiling. While this figure seems low it may not accurately represent students' struggles with mental disorders.

Many presume that students with mental disorders have taken care of their conditions since before their college careers. Administrators use this rationale to adjust policies, including their judging of students with mental disorders' capacity to study abroad. This thinking can be inaccurate, considering many mental disorders onset during ages 18-24, according to Active Minds.

"I know too many people who have rationed their sessions out," Tugendrajch says. Many students feel forced to neglect counseling when they need it for fear of hitting their limit. This is especially true for students unable to afford an outside therapist, according to Tugendrajch. While there is a session limit, most colleges and universities have some type limit on the number of therapy sessions offered to students. At Skidmore, the limit does not extend to group therapy sessions, psychiatric evaluation and emergency counseling sessions (though three-quarters of the time slots reserved for emergency sessions are usually booked).

Despite efforts by groups like Active Minds, students and faculty are not aware of how stigmatized mental health disorders are on campus. Moreover, administrators have taken little action to develop long-term plans to expand programs for students suffering from sundry mental health disorders. Though Skidmore's amenities have improved in recent years, little has been achieved in enhancing the College's Counseling Center and mental health programs. The College has not expanded its programs in proportion to the growing population of students and their needs.

Tugendrajch frequently asks herself how we should measure Skidmore's values and progress during her four years here, "A counseling center does not seem like a place to skimp. We have the best dining hall, the best housing; if we're going to cater to students in these ways, it just seems like we're letting down the students who need it the most." 

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