Current Wellness Resources Fall Short of Expectations
Fourteen students who have used NYU’s Counseling and Wellness Services told WSN they did not receive adequate care.
April 29, 2019
*Some of those who spoke to WSN asked to only be identified by their first name for privacy reasons.
Jaelynn Ortiz’s first semester at her dream school did not always feel like a dream.
Feelings of depression that the CAS first-year had previously sought counseling for had resurfaced. She decided to seek help through NYU’s Counseling and Wellness Services due to her inability to afford outside therapy.
A survivor of sexual assault, Ortiz sought advice from a professional hoping to learn coping strategies to deal with her depression.
Her first appointment was a month after she spoke to a counselor over the phone. Throughout the session, Ortiz says her counselor gave her own opinion on Ortiz’s situation but did not offer strategies to help. Uncomfortable, Ortiz said she canceled her second appointment and has not been back to the center since. Now, instead of speaking to a counselor, she talks to her academic advisor when seeking advice.
“I was looking for someone to listen [to me] and provide me with feedback with what I should be doing,” Ortiz said. “In the end of my meeting, my therapist made me feel like I didn’t have any problems.”
With 54 counselors on the New York City campus and less than 3% of NYU’s $3.378 billion endowment distributed among 12 departments in Student Affairs — which also includes Athletics and Residential Life and Housing Services — NYU’s Counseling and Wellness Services has fallen short for 14 students who spoke to WSN about their experiences.
Students said that they often experienced three-week to month-long wait times for their first appointments, and sometimes in between appointments, too. Many said the wait times were discouraging, with some giving up on using NYU’s services because of them. Others withstood the wait but found that when they gained access to counselors, they experienced unprofessional attitudes — such as grinning while asking about suicidal tendencies, advising students to “go smoke” as a solution to their problems or providing no solutions at all.
Multiple requests for phone or in-person interviews with a representative of the Counseling and Wellness Center were denied. All statements from Zoe Ragouzeos, the director of Counseling and Wellness Services, were given to WSN via email.
Student Health Center counselors are not always licensed — some are graduate students gaining fieldwork experience or training. Trainees present the cases they are working on to supervisors and must get approval from them before continuing to work with a student, according to Ragouzeos.
Grant* decided to go to the SHC for walk-in counseling after experiencing anxiety during his first year of school. He said he never spoke to a licensed professional when he visited the SHC, and his counselor was an individual who was in the process of earning their master’s degree in social work. Grant decided to seek therapy outside the center from a licensed counselor instead.
In the last 20 years, an increasing number of college students have sought help for mental health issues at their respective university’s counseling center. Being away from home for the first time and the stresses of classes and work can make college a difficult time for many: approximately 60% of college students said they had experienced “overwhelming anxiety” in the past year according to the American College Health Association. Another 40% of students reported feeling so depressed they felt like they couldn’t function. Between 2009 and 2015, the amount of students visiting college counseling centers increased by 30% according to Penn State’s 2015 annual report from its Center for Collegiate Mental Health.
In an effort to provide resources for students who are struggling during stressful times, NYU provides various services through the Counseling and Wellness Center mainly accessed via the SHC. The Manhattan and Brooklyn centers currently offer 10 free weekly group counseling sessions on topics such as substance use, emotion regulation and academic issues. Main features of the center also include 10 free individual counseling sessions per semester and the Wellness Exchange, a 24/7 text and phone hotline.
Peer institutions like Columbia University, Boston University, the University of Southern California and Cornell University operate on similar short-term counseling models for students, offering drop-in counseling and limited individual counseling sessions, referring students to outside therapists. This is why the Counseling and Wellness Center works with therapists in private practices who accept various insurance policies and have a wider range of speciality training.
Despite struggling with anxiety since his junior year of high school, CAS first-year Jonathan Schatzberg’s first and only experience with counseling was last October, when in the midst of his biology homework he decided to text the number he had heard echoed throughout the Presidential Welcome’s Reality Show.
Schatzberg downloaded the Wellness Exchange app and waited 20 minutes before a virtual counselor began to speak to him.
Once Schatzberg confirmed that he was not considering harming himself or others, he was told that he wouldn’t be able to see a counselor until three weeks later. Nationally, the average wait time to see a college counselor is seven days. Feeling like he needed to see a therapist as soon as possible, Jonathan tried to use the NYU SHC’s walk-in counseling services.
He was told that no one would be available and he should try again the next day. Frustrated, Schatzberg never returned and decided to reach out to his family instead, who he now relies on for the support he was hoping to receive from a therapist.
“When I was in that terrible, dark cloudy state last semester, I felt like nobody cared,” Schatzberg said. “That was because the university that was supposed care for me just didn’t.”
While the Wellness Exchange does outsource therapists from Morneau Shepell, a human resources company that provides online counseling for over 200 schools in the United States, the services are considered a part of NYU’s Counseling and Wellness Center.
Aastha* has used the SHC for primary care but felt that when it came to her mental health, she was experiencing symptoms that she could not identify. Not wanting to self diagnose, she tried to book an appointment with the SHC. Frustrated with not being able to see a counselor for three weeks, she reached out through the Wellness Exchange app. Aastha said the counselor she spoke to thanked her for reaching out but did not provide any support to help her with her issues surrounding mental health.
“It made me feel like seeking help was pointless altogether,” Aastha said.
Aron* waited a month between his appointments. He said he would spend an hour thinking of things to talk about because his counselor would often only respond with one phrase and not offer advice.
“I ended up not wanting to go to my appointments because I felt that I was making my own counselor upset and dragging down his mood,” Aron wrote in an email to WSN.
His first counselor ended up leaving NYU. Aron called the SHC, hoping to set up another appointment with a different counselor.
“[When I called] the line went silent after the receptionist’s greeting so I had to hang up,” Aron wrote. “I didn’t call until more than a month after that, but I wasn’t very optimistic about meeting my new counselor/therapist.”
Aron told WSN that his new counselor is much more attentive and professional.
Caleb* was perceived as at risk for harming himself or others after discussing his suicidal ideations with a counselor using the Wellness Exchange app. When a counselor from the app spoke to Caleb, she told him to “go smoke,” misunderstanding when Caleb mentioned he smoked marijuana.
“I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea, so I went for a walk instead,” Caleb wrote.
The next day, Caleb received a call from the SHC asking him to come in so they could help him work through his issues. He says he visited with a counselor and a psychiatrist at the center who started to ask him questions about how he would take his own life.
“Some of the questions felt like they were designed to push me further and further down, as I hadn’t thought of a plan, or considered why I wanted to die before being asked,” Caleb wrote.
While it is common for mental health professionals to ask these kinds of questions to assess risk level, Caleb said the demeanor of the psychiatrist made him feel uneasy — he said that the questions that she asked, combined with the constant grin on her face, made him feel uncomfortable.
Based on the answers he gave, Caleb was perceived to be at risk of harming himself and was placed in a hospital, which cost him $2,000. Afterward, he had to go to mandatory follow-up appointments at the SHC. Caleb said he felt the need to answer questions in a certain way to avoid being placed back into a hospital.
“I gave answers conducive to what they wanted to hear, and got away from those people as fast as I could,” Caleb said.
After his visit, Caleb did not feel like the SHC helped him and still has nightmares about the grinning psychiatrist he saw. Based on this experience, Caleb said he doesn’t feel safe going back to the SHC.
Ragouzeos mentioned that all Counseling and Wellness Center staff members go through extensive training for at least two weeks before they can see students. Additionally, in order for counselors to maintain their licenses, they must participate in professional development training individually and together every year.
One student, Olivia*, was told that she would have to wait three weeks to see a therapist and decided to cancel her initial appointment after finding an outside therapist she could see on a weekly basis.
Another student, Danielle*, said she felt the SHC didn’t care about her well-being — they were more concerned about if she was a liability. After waiting 15 minutes to speak to a counselor, once Danielle confirmed that she wasn’t a risk, she waited another 30 minutes to speak to another counselor. The second counselor asked her to confirm that she was not a risk. When she explained that she had been losing sleep, struggling with depression and anxiety and felt trapped, the counselor only responded with one word phrases such as “true” or “right.”
“I needed someone to ask me more about my mental health, about my depression, about what my anxiety felt like at that time,” Danielle wrote.“I needed her to ask more questions. I felt like I wasn’t being cared about.”
Ava* initially went to the SHC for help with frequent panic attacks. Unable to afford private therapy, Ava began to see a counselor every three weeks. Ava said that in addition to constantly having to repeat crucial details of her trauma, she would be told at every session that she wouldn’t be able to access these resources once her 10 free sessions were up.
“Each session, instead of talking about how I was feeling or suffering from, turned into a game planning session of what I was going to do when I ran out of sessions, even though I stressed that I had no money to pay for help outside of NYU,“ Ava wrote.
Jason*, who was looking into receiving medication for his mental health issues, debated whether or not to go to the center for months; when he did, he had to wait a month after his initial walk-in appointment to see a psychiatrist. After waiting, Jason did not feel like it was worth going back because they were overbooked.
The SHC does prioritize students who are the most at risk for harming themselves or others, which is why Ragouzeos believes that some students experience longer wait times and have less frequent visits.
“Our system for serving students is designed to prioritize students who are most at risk, resulting in some students being placed ahead of others when scheduling appointments based on the severity of their need,” Ragouzeos wrote.
Ragouzeos also noted that in line with what is common in the healthcare field, students’ need for assistance is evaluated based on a process called the triage. Students who show safety issues at the time of triage are scheduled to meet with a counselor within one week. Students who don’t present safety issues may wait two to three weeks during busy times of the year, as many of the students who spoke to WSN have.
Alli, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons, was referred to an outside counselor after her first walk-in session on the New York City campuses because she wouldn’t be able to see a counselor at the SHC for three weeks. The counselor she saw at her walk-in session believed that she would need to see someone sooner because of the way Alli described her fears of harming herself.
Ragouzeos considers counseling sessions on the New York City campuses a short-term option, especially for students who require specialist expertise.
Less than one-fifth of NYU’s total student population use these health services. Ragouzeos said she believes most students tend to neglect their mental health until problems begin to feel insurmountable.
“I’ve repeatedly observed that many people — particularly high achieving ones like our students — can tend to neglect their mental health until their problems swell into something that can feel insurmountable,” Ragouzeos wrote.
In mid-March, Counseling and Wellness Services sent out a voluntary and anonymous Patient Satisfaction Survey to the 9,000 students across the Manhattan and Brooklyn campuses who have used the Counseling and Wellness Services. The survey received about 500 responses and feedback was generally positive. According to Ragouzeos, 78% of students said that they believe their original appointment was scheduled promptly and 93% agreed with the statement, “I feel that my clinician respects me as a person.”
Counseling and Wellness Services recommends students speak directly with their counselor about concerns they might have regarding their treatment. If this proves challenging, the CWS recommends emailing the SHC. Maria Zambos, the SHC Patient Advocate, responds to all feedback, according to Ragouzeos.
The Patient Satisfaction Survey, which is administered once a semester, is one of the only ways for a student to anonymously provide feedback on a specific counselor unless the email address used when emailing the center is non-identifiable.
When Anton* reached out to the Wellness Exchange, he had to wait 30 minutes before being paired up with a counselor. Anton told the counselor that he had been diagnosed with anxiety in the past, but the counselor attested that he didn’t believe Anton had anxiety. Anton filed a complaint with the CWS, but it was never followed up on.
Nadia* was required to go to the SHC after being on medical leave for severe anxiety. Both her and her therapist felt she was ready to return this spring and her advisor allowed her to register for classes. However, she did not have a Certificate for Readiness Return, which is required for students returning from a voluntary leave due to psychological reasons. However, Nadia could no longer afford to see her therapist, so she could not obtain a certificate to bring to her mandatory assessment interview with the SHC.
According to Nadia, her assessment lasted five minutes; her counselor refused to talk to her after realizing she didn’t have the certificate. Nadia says she left the building and immediately started crying. She felt that her work towards anxiety management was going unnoticed and her counselor only wanted to check boxes off for her return.
While Counseling and Wellness Services meets standards set by the International Association of Counseling Services — an organization that reviews university counseling centers — and provides similar services to those offered by peer institutions, the students mentioned in this article feel like the care they have been provided is inadequate.
“I left feeling completely unseen and unheard in a place that is supposed to be about my wellbeing,” Nadia said.
If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-783-2433.
The number for the Wellness Exchange is 212-443-9999.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 29 print edition.
Email Mansee Khurana at [email protected]