Students discuss university’s mental health priorities

Will Barksdale | Multimedia Journalist

By Phoebe Suy | Staff Writer

The stigma surrounding mental health in Christian circles has changed according to Dr. Jim Marsh, executive director for counseling services at Baylor. Historically, he said people were inclined to think, “If I come and seek mental health services, maybe I’m weak or I’m not depending on God as much. I’m not as much of a Christian. I don’t have much faith.”

In contrast to this, Baylor’s Counseling Center services have expanded significantly to accommodate students’ needs. Some of the changes Marsh emphasized were no counseling session limits, no fees and extended hours.

“There’s just been much more realistic acceptance that I can go to see a mental health professional and get help in the same way I would go see my physician or nurse to get help,” Marsh said. “I think the distinction between those two is just less and less. I think students are much more open to getting help.”

The center offers a Walk-In Clinic open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday at the McLane Student Life Center on the second floor. This clinic is the entry-point for every student visiting the center for the first time. Once paperwork is completed, Marsh said the average wait time to meet with a counselor is roughly 15 minutes.

If the center is particularly backed up, the wait could be longer. However, Marsh said as of this Monday, the center will have a new crisis care counselor whose primary job will be assisting students who visit the Walk-In Clinic.

The counseling center offers a continuum of care with a variety of programs to fit particular needs. Services include individual, couple and group therapy as well as free-standing workshops like “Getting Gritty” that address topics such as failure, self-care and relationships. “Let’s talk” is a no-appointment consultation service offered in an informal setting where students can get an objective opinion on any issue.

All services provided by Baylor Counseling Center are confidential, meaning counselors and staff are only allowed to share limited information under very limited circumstances. Marsh said the only authorized disclosure would be to law enforcement or medical personnel and only in the event a student is in imminent or immediate danger to themselves or others.

Even if interpersonal violence or assault is disclosed in a counseling session, the counselors cannot report it to Title IX without a release of information from the student.

“We don’t have to report and that’s by design because not every student wants to report or is ready to report,” Marsh said. “They can come here and talk with us and receive help, services and support.”

However, Marsh said it is the counseling center’s job to make sure students know about the resources available to them through the university.

There are three confidential resources on Baylor campus: The Baylor Counseling Center, Baylor Health Services Center and the university chaplain, Burt Burleson.

Last year, Baylor Counseling Center saw a 65 percent increase in the number of students who came to the center. Marsh said this year the center has already seen a 71 percent increase in students seeking services.

From June 1 to Sept. 15, 2017, the counseling center saw 758 students. Marsh said he is sure by today the total will be over 800. That is more than half the students that visited the center during the 2015-2016 school year (1,296 students).

According to Marsh, the International Association of Counseling Services’ guidelines recommend a full-time staff to student ratio of one full-time staff member to every 1,500 students. Baylor’s Counseling Center offers a staff of one full-time staff member to every 768 students.

“The people who work here have picked a profession where we help people … we’ve gone through a lot of training and education to get to this point,” Marsh said. “We could work lots of other places, hospitals, all kinds of things, but we like working with college students.”

Royse City junior Juliet Villegas said visiting the counseling center her freshman year helped her during a difficult transition.

“Freshman year of college I was having a lot of trouble adjusting to living away from my family,” Villegas said. “I’m a first-generation student, so everyone I’ve ever known or loved is two hours away. No one’s ever left before.”

Villegas said she was considering leaving Baylor and restarting somewhere closer to home. She said while she was nervous to go to the counseling center at first, she decided to give it a try.

“I enjoyed the fact that [the center] is a little bit away from everything,” Villegas said. “You have to be looking for it to find it, which is a little difficult, but it makes it easier to go there.”

Villegas said she appreciated that the location of the Counseling Center allowed for a degree of privacy. For example, if a student visited the Student Life Center location, they could be meeting a friend, working out or receiving counseling. No one has to know at all, Villegas added.

Villegas said she felt really comfortable at her first session, and commented that it was nice not to feel judged.

“The lady that I spoke to, I would give her everything I was thinking about the way I was thinking about it, in a rush, and she would help me go through each thing and figure out exactly how I was feeling and how to deal with it,” Villegas said. “She kind of quelled some of my fears and some of my anger from being away from home and the roommate situation.”

Villegas said she highly recommends any student seeking mental health services to reach out to the counseling center.

“I think you need to get help before it gets so bad that you can’t speak anymore,” Villegas said.

At the same time, Waco senior Hunter Solano said he believes the Baylor Counseling Center should work to further expand their services.

Solano shared that he visited the center in Spring 2017 and expected more help than he received.

“After a couple weeks I stopped going. I felt more rushed than anything,” Solano said. “I felt they were just trying to meet these rules versus actually taking the time to care about their clients.”

Solano said he could tell that time was on his counselor’s mind because he was constantly looking at the clock, making him feel like there wasn’t time to discuss the issues that brought him to the center in the first place.

Solano acknowledged some of his issues last semester might have turned out differently if he had followed up with the last appointment before he quit going. However, Solano said he quit because he didn’t see the point since he didn’t think he was getting the help he needed.

Solano visited the center again this semester but was referred to outside counseling services in the local community.

“I didn’t even get help from the counseling center this semester and that’s what they’re here for,” Solano said. “The only help I got was something I could have Googled on my own.”

While Solano said he was told the center improved after the unfolding of the sexual assault scandals, he said he believes the center should look toward expanding their resources even more.

Marsh noted the Baylor Counseling Center does have a scope of service that defines the range of needs the center is equipped to address.

According to Marsh, transitions from the counseling center to the Waco community could be for a number of reasons. Because the center is available to 17,000 students, there are some limitations regarding what services they can reasonably offer. For example, Marsh said the center isn’t able to guarantee individuals long-term uninterrupted counseling with the same therapist. He said this particular type of service would best be set up in the community through a private practice.

If a student visited the counseling center and the center knew that long-term, consistent services would be more helpful, Marsh said they would try to connect the student with a resource in the community right away.

“The thinking was if we could know on the front end it was going to take maybe more than the semester, we would try to help you meet somebody in the community,” Marsh said. “The approach was we don’t want you to tell all this to somebody knowing that we’re going to have to end and then you’re going to have to start all over.”