Several students reported the University Counseling Center’s 12-session limit and small professional clinical staff is restricting their ability to seek counsel amid mental health challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The center is a resource available to OU students, faculty and staff, according to a university spokesperson. Services include individual counseling, couples’ counseling and group counseling. Its 12-session limit on individual counseling is meant to “ensure new patients have access to care when they need it.”
Currently, the center is funding 14 full-time professional clinical staff, four doctoral interns and four practicum students, according to the university spokesperson. The center is “actively working” with the university to increase staffing and resources to reduce wait times for patients.
Over the last two years, three additional counselors have been hired and university leadership is currently exploring options to fund two additional positions, which will move the center to the “nationally recommended ratio of counselors per student,” according to the university spokesperson.
According to the International Accreditation of Counseling Services, every effort should be made to maintain staffing ratios to one staff member for every 1,000 to 1,500 students. Based on most recent enrollment statistics, the ratio at OU is 1,197 students per counselor.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic increased anxiety and depression in many college students, according to a study conducted at a public university in North Carolina. The study surveyed 419 first-year students and found moderate to severe anxiety increased from 18.1 percent before the pandemic to 25.3 percent after it began. It also found moderate to severe depression increased from 21.5 percent to 31.7 percent.
Religious studies and public and nonprofit administration junior Ezra Koenig began using the center’s services during October of his freshman year because of a difficult time in his life and the confidentiality the center provided.
“Whenever I was first seeking counseling services, I had a rough transition period from high school to college, and I was dealing with a bad roommate situation,” Koenig said. “I was also suffering from trauma from being a part of a religious group for so long and also an abusive ex. Dealing with that and also overworking myself led me to have a nervous break my freshman year.”
Limited by the center’s 12-session cap, Koenig said his time with counselors resulted in “band-aid fixes” on pending issues, as he could only attend sessions once a month.
National research shows the average patient needs five to seven sessions to “resolve psychological issues,” according to the OU spokesperson.
The length of treatment varies from person to person, according to the American Psychological Association. Recent research indicates that, on average, “15 to 20 sessions are required for 50 percent of patients to recover.”
Koenig’s therapist informed him on his tenth session he was nearing his 12-session cap in May and asked if he wanted to request additional sessions. With plans to begin testosterone therapy, Koenig feared a potential setback in his treatment as he needed a letter from his therapist verifying his gender dysphoria to begin testosterone therapy.
During the same time, Koenig said he was beginning to come out to his parents as a transgender man and was uncertain of how his parents would react. Due to his transition and plans to come out, Koenig’s request for additional sessions was approved.
“My fear was like ‘Oh my god, if I don’t get this letter, this will set me back a couple of months, even up to a year of going through my transition process,’” Koenig said. “Thankfully, through very strenuous circumstances … they approved my sessions.”
According to the university spokesperson, additional sessions are provided based on the patient’s “presenting issue, their progress toward their therapy goals and whether they have access to community resources due to having health insurance.” Patients who do not have the ability to access community care will be considered for additional sessions.
Facing similar limitations due to the center’s 12-session limit, biology junior Isabel Harmon began utilizing the center’s services her freshman year as she sought support through moving from Arkansas City High School in Arkansas City, Kansas to OU — a school with about 25,000 more students.
Harmon said she chose the center’s services due to its on-campus convenience and affordability. For nearly two years, Harmon attended counseling sessions once a month for support through her college transition and her work in healthcare, which she began at the beginning of her sophomore year.
Working as an at-home caregiver exposed Harmon to the “most at-risk” population during the COVID-19 pandemic. She said she saw a lot of loss with little time to process, as she would immediately care for new patients.
Harmon also said it’s “terrifying” going from campus to patients’ homes during a pandemic because, although she’s vaccinated against COVID-19 and wears a mask indoors, she feels she is putting clients at risk.
“School is all in person, and so many people are refusing to wear a mask despite professors pleading with them,” Harmon said. “It’s a lot of stress and responsibility. These people rely on me to keep them safe and to help them.”
Limited to 12 50-minute sessions a year, Harmon said she had to “pack a lot” into each session, causing her and her therapist to “graze over” and prioritize her issues.
“Sometimes it felt like I was spending the majority of the sessions just trying to get it all out there,” Harmon said. “I didn’t even have a good amount of time to work through it with the therapist I was provided. It’s just a lot of information-dumping and not a lot of time to unpack and work through it.”
During more difficult times in her life, Harmon sought more frequent counseling sessions, forcing her to give up sessions later.
“It’s those hard decisions I have to make about if I really need (counseling) right now that jeopardizes (me) down the road if something happens and I need (counseling) more,” Harmon said.
While some students struggled to navigate their limit of 12 therapy sessions a year at the center, others struggled to receive services through the counseling center altogether.
Microbiology and environmental studies junior Kelly Scheurich reached out to the center in September 2020 during “crisis mode” and in need of emergency support. When she called the center, they told her she’d have to wait months for an intake appointment. Her intake appointment was eventually scheduled for November.
Scheurich’s intake appointment coincided with the November ice storm, forcing her appointment to be canceled. She said the center was not helpful as she tried to schedule a new appointment.
“It added stress to my situation, because I had really wanted to talk to somebody pretty soon about that so I could deal with everything in a healthy way,” Scheurich said.
Scheurich said she ultimately decided not to schedule a new appointment because enough time had passed from her initial call to the center. She said her issues had “resolved themselves,” and she turned to other resources such as her network of support and social media.
As Scheurich navigated through homesickness and anxiety from the pandemic, she said she went without help from the center. She had gone a month without seeing her family due to the virus in contrast to her usual once-a-week visit.
“I have a pretty negative view of (the center),” Scheurich said. “I have a very negative view of it, and if I ever needed help again, I would definitely choose other options before I went back there.”
Reflecting on her lack of help from the UCC, Scheurich said she wishes she had a “listening ear” as she sought help.
“I wish I would’ve had more immediate attention from a therapist that works there,” Scheurich said. “If I hadn’t had the resources I found, I would’ve just suffered and waited it out.”
This article was updated at 10:45 a.m. Monday, Sept. 13, to clarify the national recommended ratio of students to counselors is the one identified by the International Accreditation of Counseling Services.