MSU sets new records for the number of students visiting Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) each year. The rate of students receiving treatment from counseling centers at American universities has increased five times faster than university enrollment rates during the past five years, and MSU is experiencing similar trends. Over the past year, there has been a seven percent increase in the number of students seeking counseling on campus.
Whether individuals are continuing counseling upon entering college or addressing problems that arise during college, MSU’s CPS exists as a beacon of light for stressed students. CPS, with a wide variety of services and health professionals, is located upstairs above Student Health in the Swingle Health Center.
CPS opened its doors to MSU students in 1979 and at the time, demand was very low.The clinic saw 662 students in its maiden year out of a total of 10,109 individuals enrolled at MSU. The year 1979 predated licensing for counseling in the state of Montana, and therefore there was only one psychologist and four professionals working at CPS. In addition, there was not much offered outside of clinical services which included individual, group and couples counseling along with some crisis intervention. Soon after, there was a push to modernize the services offered by MSU. That led to more outreach, consultations and staff training. From there, CPS has only grown. “When you become more visible and a more integrated part of the campus the demand for services increases,” Donahoe pointed out.
From there it was a matter of figuring out how to meet increasing demand. In the late 1980s MSU became a training center. A graduate counseling program was created through the Department of Health and Human Development, offering degrees in family and marriage, mental health and school counseling. According to Donahoe, this move became a cost effective way for CPS to serve more students and a way for all the professionals working at CPS to keep up to date on psychological practices and information.
The next major change for CPS came after the mass shooting that struck Virginia Tech. In 2007, a student at the university opened fire on campus, killing 32 people and injuring 17 others. Shortly after, the shooter committed suicide. At this point addressing risk management became a more prominent goal of CPS, according to Donahoe. CPS has taken on an advisory role with groups on campus like the Behavioral Intervention Team and the Safety and Welfare Team to address risk management.
CPS boasts a staff of 11 licensed, senior staff members and seven trainee staff members who include pre-masters, post-masters and doctoral students to serve MSU’s 15,688 students. “We are a fun group of people. We aren’t scary,” senior staff member Betsy Asserson, who has her doctorate in psychology, stated. In comparison, the University of Montana also has 11 senior licensed counselors for a student body of 13,358 students.
With a total of 18 staff members available, finding a health professional that is the right fit for students and their personal needs is the number one concern. “It’s ok if you don’t click with a counselor,” Brian Kassar, licensed psychologist and outreach coordinator for CPS, explained, “You can find a different match, we don’t take it personally.”
CPS is free to students enrolled in at least six credits. The number of visits depends on the individual’s needs but on average, students are given 10 free one-on-one visits with a counselor. Last year alone CPS saw around 1,300 students seeking help for various reasons ranging from anxiety to depression, past trauma, relationship issues and substance abuse. According to Donahoe, on average it takes a week and a half to get an appointment.
Stress is a common reason for students to seek services from CPS. It is often a precursor for other issues, and CPS has professionals that specialize in a variety of things including time management and stress management. “We want to provide not only remedial services, but preventative services,” Donahoe emphasized. Of the students who visit CPS, between 40 and 50 percent have received prior counseling.
Besides offering personal relief, individual counseling has been shown to provide other benefits, including increased retention rates. According to Donahoe, between 94 and 98 percent of students that are seen at CPS go on to maintain their enrollment and work towards matriculation. He went on to explain: “This is a resource that really facilitates students’ ability to lay the groundwork to be successful in life after their career as a student.”
On top of individual services, CPS offers group therapy and counseling sessions. The sessions are led by one of the professionals working for CPS and accommodate between five and eight students in the group. The sessions are free for students, regardless of the credit load.
CPS works closely with Veteran Services on campus to provide support to soldiers returning to civilian life. With nearly 500 veterans on campus, the services that CPS provides for returning soldiers are well utilized, according to Donahoe. CPS has one staff member, Chip Kern, who is dedicated entirely to working with veterans. His office is located in the Disability, Re-entry and Veteran Services department.
Students can be encouraged to attend CPS via referrals although the choice to seek help is completely voluntary. Parents, students, residence life, faculty and staff can refer students to CPS. Most often people call the counseling center for a free consultation before officially making a referral. Although a consultation is common, it is not required to make a referral. Of the students seen at CPS, 46 percent come in via referral while the remaining 54 percent come in on their own cognisance.
A large component of CPS is their extensive outreach program headed by Kassar. Last year the outreach program reached nearly 3,000 students on campus. Outreach serves as a way for students to seek help while remaining somewhat anonymous. Through seminars, forums and events put on by Active Minds, a student group on campus dedicated to student mental health and wellness, CPS’ outreach program has found a successful niche. In October 2014 the program received a three-year federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to help with outreach and prevention. The funds have been able to help develop infrastructure and boost the program’s visibility. “It’s human to struggle. It’s not about weakness, it’s about reality,” Kassar stated.
Mental health is undoubtedly a prevalent issue on college campuses and CPS is working to address it head on. “Our staff is dedicated to college mental health. We are sensitive to the demands on college students,” Asserson said. “Take advantages of the resources on campus,” she concluded. Kasser went on to explain, “I don’t think people realize how available we are.”