By Alejandro Serrano, deputy news editor
Alice began studying at Northeastern in the fall of 2012. In the spring of 2013, her grades began to plummet. One A, two Ds and an audited class later, she started noticing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Then came suicidal thoughts.
“You are told at a young age that if you don’t feel [physically] well, you go to the ER,” she said. “We live in a society that if you don’t feel [mentally] well for several months, you may not know what’s wrong.”
Alice, who wished to keep her last name private, didn’t think about pursuing medical help until the 2013 fall semester when she went to University Health and Counseling Services (UHCS). Her first appointment was an hour-long walk-in, after which she scheduled a follow-up appointment. However, because no one had explained how the therapy process worked at UHCS, Alice said it became “unnerving and unpleasant” when she discovered her second appointment was a discussion of medication rather than a regular therapy session.
“I don’t necessarily blame UHCS for that part of the experience, but I didn’t know how to handle that,” Alice said. “[At that point] I barely knew what is going on with my body, and then I was told that I misunderstood the point of the appointment.”
Fifty-seven percent of students do not feel comfortable returning to UHCS after a first appointment – the most common reason being dissatisfaction with mental health care – according to a survey conducted by Students Against Institutional Discrimination (SAID). The online survey about experiences at UHCS commenced Jan. 28 of this year. Ninety-nine student responses had been recorded as of March 21.
After Alice’s experience, a close friend told her that she had the option of medical leave – taking time away from Northeastern for health reasons. However, Alice did not see the option anywhere on the UHCS website. She said her friend walked her through the process, and she ultimately took a year-long leave from school.
UHCS added medical leave of absence information to its website on July 15, 2014, according to Internet archive analysis. Alice had sought help nearly 10 months earlier.
Head of the UHCS project and SAID representative Naomi Zingman-Daniels was one of the creators of the survey. She said knowing there was something wrong with UHCS served as motivation.
“People aren’t happy with UHCS, and we are working with (mental health advocacy group) Active Minds because this [project] is a big focus of SAID this semester,” said Zingman-Daniels, a senior psychology major.
Following the collection of data, several Northeastern students met with UHCS interim director Dr. Robert Klein for an hour on March 3. At the forefront of the meeting were Student Government Association Chair of the Student Services Committee Elliot Horen, SAID research coordinator and head of UHCS project Zingman-Daniels and Active Minds advocacy chair Anthony Formicola.
Six topics were addressed at the meeting, each with subtopics, according to the meeting’s agenda. Discussion was kept strictly to the agenda due to time constraints, Zingman-Daniels said.
The meetings’ goals were to build awareness around quality of mental health services offered as well as clarify the scope of care, Horen said.
“It’s a productive starting point,” Horen said. “[Klein] was receptive in regard to student concerns. I think about what we can do as students. What help can we offer?”
At the time of the meeting, 65 percent of respondents to SAID’s survey said there have been times they needed to see a doctor but refrained from going to UHCS, according to the agenda. That number is now 71 percent, according to the most recent data.
The most common negative responses cited were difficulty seeing a doctor, long wait time, better care elsewhere and discouragement after previous care – especially mental health care. UHCS mental health services are based on short-term therapy.
Senior communications major Marcella Adalgisa D’Aston went to UHCS in the fall of 2013 after transferring to Northeastern from Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. She wanted to continue psychiatric counseling she had started at Quinnipiac.
She said she had a great experience with her first doctor, Tess, through the end of the spring semester. However, Tess left Northeastern in May of 2014; she recommended another doctor for D’Aston to see.
On a visit with her new psychiatrist, D’Aston was explaining a serious situation when the doctor laughed at her.
“It wasn’t a situation that she should laugh at. I told her something that I do to relax,” D’Aston said. “There have just been so many experiences where she just didn’t seem like she was really understanding what I was trying to say. Not looking like she is trying to help me, just kind of listening because it is her job.”
Following the meeting, D’Aston told the psychiatrist she wanted to stop taking antidepressants she had started a year earlier and that she no longer wanted to meet regularly after her next appointment. Her new psychiatrist has contacted D’Aston to continue meeting, but D’Aston has not gone back and stopped taking the medication in January of this year.
“I don’t want to go into there because I feel like I am going to be let down every single time,” she said.
Another issue addressed at the meeting with Dr. Klein was difficulty in getting an appointment. The average wait time for a mental health appointment is about three weeks, according to the survey.
When contacted for comment, Dr. Klein redirected the inquiry to a university spokesperson.
“The university consistently works with students to enhance the campus experience and the services available to the university community,” said a March 30 statement from the university. “UHCS recently met with a group of student to discuss behavioral health services. Those conversations are ongoing and are an important component to the university’s commitment to provide valuable support to our students.”
Dr. Klein has been very receptive to students’ concerns, according to Formicola.
“I think it’s easy to forget that health providers are in their particular line of work because they want to make people’s lives better,” Formicola said in an email to The News. “We hope to help them continue to extend those benefits [available] to more students who have had bad UHCS experiences, or those who have heard about bad UHCS experiences, or those who haven’t even been able to get UHCS care because of difficulty with scheduling appointments.”
UHCS currently has 14 behavioral health care providers, according to News archives. UHCS also has a referral coordinator who, at a student’s request, gives students a list of nearby practitioners. However, not all students have success in finding help through the list.
Alice said she had to go through three separate lists of referrals before finding help. She said all help that she has gotten has been outside of Northeastern.
“Going into it [finding help] knowing that half of these numbers aren’t going to work is pretty disheartening,” she said. “If UHCS wanted to make the smallest amount of work with the largest impact to help students, they would scan the lists.”
She said she understands that such a task can be a lot of work for an understaffed office, and she doesn’t blame UHCS.
The behavioral staff at UHCS is comprised of clinical nurse experts, mental health counselors, psychologists, psychotherapists and a psychiatrist, according to the UHCS website. The medical team consists of nurses, nurse practitioners, physicians and physician assistants.
“On the few times I have seen them for physical illness, they have done a good job,” said Marielle, a third-year student who wished to keep her last name private. Marielle took a medical leave the second semester of her freshman year with the help of UHCS. However, miscommunication made the process of coming back very stressful and difficult, she said.
On Tuesday, March 29, Marielle couldn’t get out of bed and get to class due to her mental state. Despite having avoided UHCS since her bad experience, she decided to seek help on Tuesday morning. She was able to talk to a mental health specialist, who provided assistance and referred her to on-campus help.
“I felt very supported, and they gave me the tools I needed to get back on track,” she said in a follow-up email to The News. “I learned that while UHCS doesn’t have the resources to offer extended help, they have a great system in place to act as an intermediary between themselves and the students’ academics.”
Marielle has been seeing a psychiatrist she found through Psychology Today every two weeks for long-term care since she came back from medical leave in the fall semester of 2014.
The Northeastern students who met with Dr. Klein on March 3 will meet with him again on Thursday, April 7. Some of the topics that will be discussed are how UHCS can improve its website, the student feedback process and group therapy offerings, according to Formicola.
SAID launched a one-question survey about which group therapy proposals UHCS should provide. There are 10 options including mood disorders, eating disorders and severe mental illness.
Utilizing the initial survey’s data, Zingman-Daniels and Formicola said they hope the meetings continue into next semester.
“It’s a complicated project, and I am really honored,” she said. “We don’t it take for granted…the people are sharing very personal stories and we wish it could move faster because of that and we realize how important it is, but we use that to keep on pushing and keep setting up meetings.”
Some of UHCS’ problems can be solved with hiring more personnel, according to Alice.
“It gets hard to walk through Curry and see all these renovations that are funded by money that can be used to help students that are sick at school,” she said. “As a student body, we deserve the ability to seek mental health care on an emergency and long-term [situation]. Either shouldn’t come at the cost of the other.”
Infographic by Rowan Walrath