Students face barriers in accessing services at the Counseling Center
Long wait times, referrals to outside therapists among concerns
American University students have struggled to find adequate care and support from the Counseling Center on campus as they deal with long wait times and a lack of support through the process.
Benjamin Card, a rising junior in the School of International Service and College of Arts and Sciences, was unable to continue attending AU counseling sessions after his eight free sessions because he could not pay the fees required.
In need of further support, Card had to look outside of AU for other options with what he said was little assistance from the center in referring him to places.
“It was kind of just like, ‘Alrighty, our eight weeks are up. Sorry, can’t help you anymore,’” Card said. “I feel like there is not enough attention paid. It’s very much just like focusing on those eight sessions, but ‘if it does not happen within all of them then it’s not our problem,’ it's the kind of vibe I get.”
All AU students can receive up to six to eight weekly sessions of individual therapy per academic year since, according to the Counseling Center, many students have their concerns addressed within this amount of time. Once the free individual sessions are over, students can either continue in group therapy on campus, which has no limit on the number of free sessions, or seek off-campus treatment.
The Counseling Center was established to provide individual therapy, group therapy and support for referrals to off-campus help, according to their website. The center also leads workshops and events to educate and share tools for assistance for students struggling with their mental health.
Dr. Traci Callandrillo, assistant vice president of campus life and former executive director of the AU Counseling Center, said that mental health services are offered through multiple departments at AU. The Counseling Center provides interventions that are technology-based, initial consultations that give an initial assessment, time-limited individual treatments and unlimited group psychotherapy, as well as outreach and consultation.
“We have psychiatric services in our health center and we have a range of other mental health and health care services that happen through the Counseling Center,” Callandrillo said. “So within the Counseling Center, specifically, we offer a full range of interventions from urgent care which is globally available 24/7, 365 days a year as a resource.”
Students encountered difficulties scheduling appointments at the Counseling Center. Lauren Considine, a junior in the Kogod School of Business and CAS, contacted the center multiple times by calling and emailing in the beginning of the school year without any response.
Considine had been involved in therapy for the last few years of her life, but since therapists cannot provide services to those located across state lines, she had to find a new source of support in DC.
After calling two or three times and leaving messages without any reply, Considine gave up on contacting the AU Counseling Center and began to search for resources in the area on her own.
Considine finally found a therapist in DC that is a good fit for her in the beginning of February after searching since August.
Callandrillo said the Counseling Center always returns calls and it is possible that students do not have voicemail boxes set up, which would hinder staff’s ability to respond to them.
With an increasing demand of students seeking mental health services each year, according to Callandrillo, the Counseling Center hired two new clinicians to the team as an addition to their resources.
“We either have to choose to give some people long term therapy and not treat a lot of students or provide as many services as possible to our community and that's the choice that makes sense,” Callandrillo said.
Callandrillo said she is happy more students feel comfortable reaching out for support but that some students might not understand the center’s difficulties with meeting such high demand, which is something she can’t control, she said.
“I love that when I first started doing this work, there was such intense shame attached to acknowledging that you had mental health or that you struggled with mental health,” Callandrillo said. “Now we have this other side of the challenge though, which is people want the resources, but so do all of their friends, so… we really added to our resources.”
Callandrillo said that her team measures treatment outcomes for students and compares that to counseling centers at universities all across the country.
“In the major categories that American University students experience difficulty with the most, we have some of the best treatment outcomes in the country,” Callandrillo said. “We're above the 95th percentile in several different categories, meaning we get better treatment outcomes and more than 95 percent of counseling centers.”
For other students, though, their problems with the Counseling Center arose after receiving an appointment.
School of Public Affairs freshman Emily Ahern said she not only experienced a roughly month-long wait time to be seen by the Counseling Center but was told at her appointment that she should seek another therapist in the area.
Ahern recalls that she reached out to the Counseling Center around the last week of September 2021 to schedule an appointment and did not have her initial consultation until late of October 2021, which Ahern said made her feel like she “wasn’t a priority.”
“I answered questions that the person I was meeting had asked me and basically the person I met with told me, and this is almost verbatim, that it seemed like I had too many issues for them to address,” Ahern said. “Which firstly, you should not say to anyone ever and secondly, the main thing I talked about was having anxiety, so I don't really know how having anxiety is too many issues for them to address.”
Callandrillo said that students take an initial assessment as an intervention to get treatment recommendations, such as if it’s necessary to seek long-term treatment with a therapist in the DC community. Callandrillo said that some students find it challenging to have to start over again with a new therapist, but that the Counseling Center works with students to let them decide what they are comfortable with.
The six to eight allotted free sessions are based on the Counseling Center’s research and the measured outcomes of students in comparison to other counseling centers in the U.S.
“We have the session limit we have, we're going to hold to that boundary, so it shouldn't be a surprise to somebody when they when they are working with their therapist and the therapist in the Counseling Center says, ‘We're coming to the end of our time,’” Callandrillo said. “[Students] often feel frustrated with that, which I totally understand.”
Ahern said that the Counseling Center provided her with a list of available therapists in the area whom they’ve worked with in the past, but Ahern couldn’t find an available booking until right before Thanksgiving break.
“I remember emailing people frantically and like calling my dad and trying to do this all before Thanksgiving break because I actually wanted to enjoy my break, and then all of the people that they recommended for me did not in fact have any openings,” Ahern said.
November is one of the busiest times for the Counseling Center, according to Callandrillo. This is due to the anticipation of Thanksgiving break and the buildup of demand that comes from August.
Callandrillo said that this past November saw the longest average wait time for an intake appointment at nine days. For comparison, she said that the average wait time in March of this year was 3.3 days.
“We're a health care agency,” Callandrillo said.“If you were to look for a therapist in the community, you would be waiting a lot longer than nine days.”
Ahern said it was frustrating that it took so long to find a local therapist, especially since she said her experience with the counseling center did not meet her expectations.
“You can't prolong this process…getting me in for a consultation that was month away and then once I had that done, another month almost passed before I got the resources that I was promised,” Ahern said “So what could have been a couple of weeks process turned into a two month process for no reason, and it also had no impact on my life. I didn't even end up finding a therapist.”
According to Card, the issues he has faced with getting support from the Counseling Center led to a lack of trust in finding consistent mental health care on campus for him.
“I think having regularity and something that can be not just short term, but something that will actually affect change and being able to build habits is something that I value,” Card said. “ I know I won’t get that from AU.”