Central Michigan University refuses to acknowledge its shortcomings in providing sufficient resources for students combating mental health

7:41 AM College Lawyer Blog 0 Comments

Tuesday, 10/5/16

Recently, Central Michigan Life published an article by Cheyanne Rutterbush titled, "After a 107 student long wait list in fall 2015, this fall has no wait list" (in an attempt to eradicate that statistic, the article's title has been changed to "Counseling Center wait list down from last fall" on October 5th, 2016, three days after its publication). The article then goes on to address the positive aspects of the Central Michigan University Counseling Center.  Nevertheless, the article fails to shed light on why the Counseling Center has experienced such a significant drop in those trying to utilize their services. 

In the article, Ross Rapaport, Director of the Counseling Center, claims that the counselors, psychologists, and social workers of the counseling staff works to ensure a warm and friendly environment for all students. "We do what we can to help make students comfortable when coming to or contacting the Counseling Center. It's very important to us," Rapaport tells CM Life.  If a student feels uncomfortable with the counselor, they have the option to switch to another. 

The article then proceeds to highlight that last fall, the Counseling Center had a wait list consisting of 107 students all of which were "offered" at least a single session. Rapaport recalls, "During the spring semester 2016, we operated essentially without a wait list unless a student was waiting to see a specific counselor." It begs the question, why is a counseling center, one that is truly dedicated to the comfort and support of their students, seeing a decline in the use of their services? 

Well, as the CM Life article mentions, not everyone feels comfortable opening themselves up and expressing their emotional distress the first time they meet with a mental health professional. As Rapaport is reported as saying, it can take multiple meetings for a student to feel comfortable with a counselor. He even acknowledges that a student might have to switch to a completely different counselor in order to find the comfort needed to begin addressing their mental health concerns. Rutterbush acknowledges that the counseling center at Central Michigan University is meant for "short-term visits." She also tacks on another quote from Rapaport, "The number of counseling sessions a student has with their counselor varies depending on the situation. We encourage students to discuss this with their counselor." 

If that's the case, how was a girl struggling with the chronic depression she was diagnosed with at age eleven limited to a measly two sessions? (To view her story, read the predecessor to this article: "A look at Central Michigan University's disregard for students battling mental illness") Even if she was able to connect with the counselor she sat down with on her first visit, what kind of mental health professional decides that "the situation" brought forth by an individual actively seeking help for a chronic mental illness is to be deserving of no more than two meetings? Likewise, what kind of mental health professional considers two counseling sessions to be sufficient when a patient is still struggling to combat their mental illness after already having spent seven years in treatment? 

On the other hand, what if she didn't feel comfortable with the counselor assigned to her? What if she needed more than two time-limited sessions to rise above the anxieties of presenting herself at her most vulnerable to a complete stranger? Perhaps she was debating switching to another counselor but never had the chance. 

If the CM Life article is true, why are so many Central Michigan students unsatisfied with the services available to them through the university?  With that being said, I feel it necessary to provide the following first hand statements from students who were courageous enough to share their own experiences with the university's mental health services. The following are just two of the statements I received following my first article addressing Central Michigan University's complete disregard for students battling mental illness: 

"I have been battling depression since I was a junior in high school, and attended therapy regularly up until I left for school and CMU. I first contacted the CMU Counseling Center one morning after having a panic attack my sophomore year. When I called, a voice recording asked if this was an emergency or not, and I remember being unsure as to what constituted as an emergency, therefore choosing that it was not. I came in contact with a woman who asked me my schedule and let me know that I would receive a phone call back when they could find time to fit in an appointment for me. A couple days later they called and asked if I could come to an appointment about a week later, which I agreed to. At my appointment, the lady asked me a couple background questions and asked why I had come today. As I started explaining my thoughts and feelings, becoming more and more vulnerable, I noticed that everything I said was met with a single “Mm-hm” from her. I remember that I would talk about something, wait for her to respond, and watch as she just sat and stared at me. Other than the occasional question to clarify, I don’t think I was ever given back an actual piece of advice, suggestion, or even a bit of conversation back. As the hour came to an end, she scheduled an appointment for me to come back at the same time next week. I remember feeling slightly confused as I left. I was unsure as to whether I had been helped or not. At my next appointment, she asked if I had endured anymore panic attacks, to which I told her I had not. I told her a little bit about how my week went, how it had been good and how I was feeling a little better that morning. I talked for about ten minutes, and she then decided that I was fine and that after ten minutes there was no need to continue this session, or to schedule any following sessions. She determined that my need for therapy was over because of one temporary good week I had and I did not know how to refute this… so I simply agreed and left. Ultimately, going to the counseling center probably hurt more than it helped. I had been comforted in knowing that CMU was so willing to help their students who had mental illnesses, but after pursuing it I felt as though my depression had been dismissed as “just a bad week”. As a senior now, I have not tried going again since."

This is a perfect example of Central Michigan University's disregard for students battling mental illness. Just as hearing doesn't always equate to listening, acknowledging doesn't always mean acknowledgement. How much assistance do a few "mm-hms" provide a student seeking validation for their problems? And, after leaving the progress-less first session, their problems void of acknowledgment, this individual was dismissed within the first ten minutes of their next visit. After having the strength to reach out for help moments after suffering a panic attack and waiting over week for an appointment, their hand was swatted away by the very person who was supposed to pull them up.

"I’m currently 21 years old and I’ve suffered from anxiety and depression since I was 18 years old. My anxiety became a problem during my winter break of my senior year of high school. I went to a counseling center near my house for a while... 

Fast forward to my freshman year of college, one of the scariest transitions of my life. I’m already uncomfortable that I’m away from home and then throw anti-depressants in the mix, it was an interesting first month to say the least. But I eventually found peace by discovering that there were kids like me. Kids like me that hurt on the inside, but never had the guts to show it on the outside.

My first experience with the CMU Mental health center was second hand. After countless nights of talking my roommate off the edge, I finally convinced him to try out the services. I even promised to walk him to to the center and wait till he was checked in before I left his side. When he returned he told me the plan of the rehabilitation, take it slow and eventually try to find the cause of his anxiety fueled depression. But this taking it slow talk, didn’t last. He went for a total of 4 visits before they started talking about how this is supposed to be a short term program and that he should basically prepare himself to slowly start weening off the treatments. 

Weening off the visits? You just [expletive] told this kid that it would be a slow process and after four visits, you’re explaining to him that the plan is, for his visits to come to an end? Anybody with anxiety has a hard enough time adjusting to new people and situations, let alone talking with someone about their deepest darkest issues. If anything, he was just starting to feel comfortable by that fourth visit. He was just beginning to lean on them as a crutch and they ripped it out from under him. 

Within a few weeks he relapsed and was back at square one. We were having our talks all over again, as if he had never reached out for help. He felt as if the center didn’t help him at all.

Now, my experience. Last spring, I slowly started to realize that all of my relationships were very controlling. My jealousy fueled outbursts were not healthy for me or the people I was with. I finally came to grips with the fact that I had anger issues, and decided to seek help. So I went to the Health Services building and signed up.

At this point, I was pretty comfortable with telling people about my problems, so that was a breeze. But the environment itself was very unsettling. I talked to my therapist in what seemed like a side closet, barely big enough for two chairs and a small desk. The walls were paper thin and I’m sure that if someone really wanted to listen to our conversations, they could have.

My first session was the mandatory introduction [expletive], who I am, where I’m from and what I hope to accomplish. After that, my following four sessions were all pretty similar. My therapist would ask me how my week was and if I got upset. He would then ask me why I got upset, I would vent about it for a half hour, he would tell me to try and not get so upset about the little things, suggest that I try to think happy thoughts and then tell me he’d see me next week. That was it. Every week was the same conversation, with no solution. 

When I finally started to feel like I was getting comfortable with my anger and on the right path to controlling it, he told me that after my 5th visit, it was time to discuss ending the sessions. 

Now I’m lucky enough that my issue was anger. I’m not angry enough to hurt anybody or myself, so there was really no major threat that I stopped my sessions. I was just going to seek any guidance I could in the first place, so it’s not like ending the sessions would bring my life to a screeching halt.

But what about my roommate? What about everyone else with suicidal thoughts and tendencies that finally built up the courage to seek help and then get told five sessions in, that it’s time to consider other options? It disgusts me that it’s such an accelerated process. Mental rehabilitation is the one thing that should never, ever be rushed."

Fortunately, both of these students were paired professionals competent enough to realize that it would require more than two sessions to address their matters. Yes, it is clearly stated that the university's counseling services are meant to be short-term and that students should discuss any session related concerns with their counselor— but, why? Was it the need to accommodate the nonexistent wait list? At the very least, those who have been utilizing mental health resources from before they ventured to a university and/or those with a documented, diagnosed mental illness should be able to visit with adequate mental health professionals without restraint. 

How is it that these two statements completely contradict the article published by CM Life? Clearly the above students were unsatisfied with their treatment regardless of the number of sessions that they received. Even more disturbing is Central Michigan University's refusal to acknowledge their inadequacy when it comes to their mental health services. Then again, can we expect a university to acknowledge such a problem when the mental health professionals they've employed can't acknowledge the problems of the students seeking their help?

Is it so far-fetched to think that the wait list is nonexistent because Central Michigan's Counseling Center isn't providing students with the help that they expect to receive, the help that they need?  Just like a restaurant, people are willing to wait if the service is adequate and the outcome is beneficial to the customer. And, if the restaurant succeeds in the latter, people tend to go back for more.

Clearly, it's Central Michigan's turn to respond. The first step in resolving any issue is acknowledging that a problem exists to address your faults is to address your strengths. Silence is cowardly and anyone or anything with a reputation worth defending ought to do so. Either take value in your institution or take value in your students. If you value your institution, acknowledge your faults and work to make the university's mental health services the best in the MAC, Michigan, the Midwest or the country. If you value your students, acknowledge your faults and work to make the university's mental health services a resource that meets both the expectations and the needs of those students seeking help. Provide a resource that will allow every student to flourish, not just a few.

To visit the CM Life article, please click here.
To read the article "A look at Central Michigan University's disregard for students battling mental illness," click here.

Seth Canner
Assistant Editor-In-Chief, CLB
Law Clerk, Levitt Law Firm