By Alyssa Lukpat, news staff
When Julia Cooper went to Northeastern’s health center her sophomore year to talk to a therapist, they told her she couldn’t see one until she figured out why she was depressed.
“If that was my first time ever going to a therapist, I would’ve stopped going,” said Cooper, a fifth-year psychology major. “Instead, they gave me a list of referrals. It was hard to call for appointments, especially when I was super depressed and really isolating myself. When I called them, the lines were dead or they didn’t call back. I couldn’t reach any of them.”
Cooper eventually found a therapist by herself, but was quick to say not every student’s insurance provides that option. To make up for the lack of therapy on college campuses, more companies and organizations across the United States are offering therapy services through phone calls, video calls and texting for students who cannot or do not feel comfortable seeing a therapist at school.
While Northeastern students can talk to staff at campus offices, such as We Care and the Violence Support, Intervention and Outreach Network, these resources do not provide licensed therapists. Cooper said some of her friends had to wait weeks to see a therapist at Northeastern’s University Health and Counseling Services, or UHCS.
UHCS declined to comment for this article.
Cooper is disappointed that Northeastern does not prioritize mental health resources for students.
“Northeastern’s attitude is, ‘Let’s brush it under the rug. Let’s not talk about suicide and how we can make mental health better in general,’” Cooper said. “Lots of people who are college-age deal with mental health and could benefit from mental health services.”
When students can’t wait weeks for therapy, phone therapy sessions can be just as effective as in-person counseling, said Cassie Christensen, co-founder of Modern Therapy, a company that provides online counseling services. At Modern Therapy, students have an initial consultation with a therapist on the phone. Then, they pay a weekly fee to maintain online correspondence with the therapist.
“If you’re going through a hard time and hitting your head against the wall, call our number and we start therapy in four hours,” she said. “Sometimes starting a conversation with someone is the best thing to do.”
As more young people seek to address their mental health, some universities have tried to keep up with the increased demand. The Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State University reported that the number of students in the United States seeking help under the “threat-to-self” category, which includes self-harm, suicidal ideation or suicide attempts, rose for the seventh consecutive year in 2017.
Schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, have increased their services in recent years. In 2015, MIT implemented a plan to increase counseling staff and trained peer advisors, add a mental health drop-in center and create an online request form for therapy appointments.
To provide more options for people in the Huntington/Forsyth area, Cooper helped launch Lean On Me, an organization that offers a texting hotline for people to receive support from peers.
“It’s helpful having someone, although they couldn’t provide cognitive behavioral therapy, to listen and validate what I’m going through,” she said. “I felt so alone and I lost friends because I was so depressed. I wasn’t comfortable talking to my friends and it would’ve been helpful in those moments to have someone to talk to.”
While universities aren’t the only ones to blame for how societies handle mental health, they don’t always do a sufficient job of helping students address their concerns. For students who need help right away, free texting services like
Crisis Text Line puts them in contact with a trained crisis counselor, said Jared Wolf, the service’s media manager.
“Crisis Text Line is ideal for that heat of the moment crisis when you need to talk to someone immediately and if you’re in immediate danger,” Wolf said. “For a lot of people, Crisis Text Line is that stepping stone to seeking longer term care. We give referrals to 14 percent of people when the texter needs something beyond what we can provide.”
Campus health centers also give students referrals on occasion. However, these counselors are not always available to take new patients. At Zencare, students can select a therapist after watching videos of counselors who are accepting new patients, said Yuri Tomikawa, the company’s founder and CEO.
“I think one of the challenges with getting names or suggestions from campus services is a lot of the information is not kept up-to-date,” Tomikawa said. “A therapist’s availability changes weekly and campuses aren’t currently designed to have an up-to-date database like Zencare’s platform.”
In addition to using online resources when health centers don’t provide mental health services, Silvia Dominguez, a professor of sociology and human services at Northeastern, said students can go to health clinics near campus. If a Northeastern professor thinks a student needs help, Dominguez said the professor can contact We Care, a Northeastern office that helps students experiencing challenges in maintaining their academic progress.
“As faculty, we can refer students to them and tell them it’s available. We can also alert We Care that we’re concerned about a particular student,” she said. “We Care may or may not try to intervene without the student actually asking for it, but nevertheless it makes an extra person aware that there’s concern for a student.”
Cooper is grateful to have alternative therapy resources available when she cannot see a therapist. Wolf agrees, saying services like Crisis Text Line understand that any mental health problem can be an emergency.
“There’s no such thing as a problem being too small, which can be the impression students get when they’re turned away from health center or put on a waitlist,” Wolf said. “It’s so important to not hold it in and to share it with someone so you move past it and figure out what to do next.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story was mistaken about the status of the Lean on Me organization. Lean on Me is a mental health resource for people in the Huntington/Forsyth area.