Students, CMHS staff discuss positives, shortcomings of on-campus counseling services

Tufts' Counseling and Mental Health Services, located at 120 Curtis St., is pictured on Oct. 24. Meredith Long / The Tufts Daily

According to its website, about 25 percent of Tufts students seek support through Counseling and Mental Health Services (CMHS) each year. Many students have criticized its focus on short-term care, inconvenient hours and long wait times for appointments. However, both students and CMHS staff note the difficulties of expanding the scope of on-campus services. Other students have also been pleased with what they have seen at CMHS in terms of confidentiality, cost, accessibility and most importantly, quality.

“People may think that university therapists aren’t as good as private-practice therapists, but I don’t believe that’s the case. I think it just comes down to compatibility,” Gia Kim, a junior and member of Active Minds at Tufts, said. “It’s not just a job to many of them. I’ve had several friends who’ve had great experiences with them. The less positive experiences were often due to poor compatibility between the individual and the therapist.”

Senior Bri Pastro, co-president of Active Minds at Tufts, said that CMHS is an option for Tufts students who are perhaps too busy and do not have time to work with a therapist that is off campus or requires a commute to get to.

“So often when I want to refer someone to therapy is when they’re really stressed about school, and they’re like, ‘I don’t have time for that,’” Pastro said.

Pastro added that CMHS has an advantage over private-practice therapists in this area because they are on campus and have an inside look at Tufts’ culture and the unique challenges faced by students.

“It’s been very helpful for me to have a point person on campus for my mental health, someone that understands Tufts’ culture and the resources for me at Tufts,” Pastro said.

CMHS can also be more affordable than private-practice therapists and psychiatrists, Kim said.

“Therapy at CMHS is [included in the Health Service Fee], and psychiatric visits are significantly less than private-practice psychiatric visits,” Kim said. “Outsourcing is like $300 to $400, merely for the initial consultation, so if insurance doesn’t cover it, it’s just too expensive.”

Yet, students also express frustrations with some aspects of CMHS’ services, including with its scope of care. According to its website, CMHS offers students “time-limited counseling services” for a duration that is “rarely beyond about a semester,” and it will refer students to an outside provider if the student requires “longer term or more frequent counseling sessions.”

CMHS sees [itself] as a short-term mental health center, and that’s not the way a lot of students see them,” Pastro said. “A lot of students see [it] as the only accessible way to get therapy.”

CMHS Director Julie Ross explained that with the rising demand for mental health services in universities across the country, it is often hard to meet all students’ needs for services.

“Since the demand exceeds staffing considerably, the vast majority of college counseling centers use brief forms of counseling,” Ross told the Daily in an email. “It is important to us that we are able to provide assistance to all the students seeking care, and to get students seen in a timely way.  We could not do this if we offered open-ended long-term [care].”

Ross said that as a result, CMHS’ services are more geared towards students who may not need or want long-term therapy or those who are not prepared to be referred to an external care provider.

“If the issues a student is dealing with do not respond to, or are not appropriate for, a period of brief treatment, we assist with referrals to providers in the community for ongoing care,” Ross said.

Senior Emma Lampropoulos, a member of Active Minds at Tufts, said that she was referred away from CMHS because of its limited scope of treatment.

“I came into Tufts having a pre-existing issue — obsessive compulsive disorder — and I called asking them if I could see somebody, and they said that they weren’t comfortable handling that because they didn’t have someone well-versed in obsessive compulsive disorder, so they referred me out,” Lampropoulos said.

Kim added that finding a suitable off-campus therapist is a complicated process that could take up to months.

“[The lack of long-term care at CMHS] is not a fault on their part, it’s a fault on the health care system, and they’re just a Band-Aid solution,” Will Hodge, a senior and co-president of Active Minds at Tufts, said.

Another area of potential improvement for CMHS is its 9 a.m.–5 p.m. operating hours, which can be a problem for students who work or have a packed class schedule in the day. In conjunction with Active Minds at TuftsCMHS has been trying to improve this aspect, although what they can actually accomplish is sometimes limited, according to Pastro.

“Honestly, they just don’t have the budget to hire new people,” Pastro said. “It comes down to the minimum amount of budget that will reach the maximum amount of people.”

According to Ross, however, CMHS is “currently offering hours until 7 [p.m.] two nights per week.”

One option that maximizes the limited resources of CMHS is group counseling. However, Ross noted that this option is not always appealing to students who do not feel comfortable sharing personal matters in such a large space.

“We are currently running 9 groups (8 of which are fully subscribed, one is still accepting new members), a discussion group series, and several workshops throughout the semester,” Ross said. “That said, many students are reluctant to attend group counseling, and it is not appropriate for everyone.”

According to Kim, even with its focus on the short term, CMHS appointments are often booked weeks in advance, which can be difficult for students who are struggling in the moment and need timely, but not urgent, care.

“Sometimes you have to wait like two weeks for your next session, and by then, the problem has gotten worse or boiled over,” Kim said.

Ross highlighted CMHS’ online therapy services, which can be helpful for students who cannot always find an appointment with CMHS. 

“These services connect students with licensed therapists who are available through video, live chat, phone, or text,” Ross said. “They offer rapid-access to care (usually within 24 hours-48 hours). Two of these, BetterHelp and iHope, are listed on our website.”