Students advocate for better mental health support, UHCS responds

After about a year and a half of pandemic living, it’s no surprise that mental health issues are on the rise, especially on college campuses. Some students at Northeastern believe the school is not taking these problems seriously. 

Jackie Williams, a third-year biology major, decided it is time to take action. A few months ago, she created a petition to urge Northeastern to address understaffing and underfunding issues in University Health and Counseling Services, or UHCS, WeCare and the Disability Resource Center, or DRC. Additionally, she called for improved collaboration between the three departments. 

After attempting to get accomodations for a concussion that left her unable to attend classes or take exams in the fall 2019 semester, Williams faced a number of challenges. 

UHCS and WeCare advised Williams to email her professors and explain her absences, but her professors would not allow them without a note. When she asked the DRC for an official accommodation, she said she wasn’t informed or aware of the temporary conditions accommodations policy, which states that the DRC will “provide [students] with some strategies or services to assist [students] if [they] are injured or have a temporary condition and can work with [students] and [their] professors in certain circumstances if necessary.” 

Instead, her DRC advisor told her injuries and illnesses did not qualify. Forced to look elsewhere, Williams obtained documentation from urgent care.

“When I did share this note with my professors, several professors still refused to accommodate me with make-up exams because I was not attending class, even though I explained that attending classes was physically painful for me and requested recordings,” Williams said. 

We’re in a perfect storm situation where many say that the other current pandemic is mental health. While many counseling centers have made efforts to increase the number of staff and address these issues, in many colleges and universities that has not happened.”

— Amy Reynolds

When visiting WeCare, Williams shared the extent to which her concussion was also affecting her mental health. She said that staff members there pushed her to answer personal and invasive questions about her mental health and the event surrounding her concussion, and she complied in the hopes of receiving the accommodations she needed. However, she had no idea that WeCare staff are  mandated reporters, which is not explicitly stated on their website. 

“Eventually, I did reveal the upsetting personal information because I felt I had no choice,” Williams said. “While a few of my professors were very kind, supportive and accommodating, others were not and one did not even respond to me. Because I had to reveal information I did not want to, and some professors still would not help me, it became very emotionally distressing for me to continue in my classes with those professors.”

WeCare and the DRC, Williams said, sided with these professors and told her that her best course of action was a retroactive medical leave of absence. She was lucky enough to receive a refund, but that policy changed as of this semester. Now, students will not get their money back if the same thing happens to them. 

In addition, students who return from medical leave are required to complete 67% of the credits they attempt that year, or they will lose their financial aid, as part of a plan called Satisfactory Academic Progress, or SAP. Williams is grappling with this now, as she was not able to complete all the credits necessary. There is an appeals process through Student Financial Services, but it is unpredictable.

“I wasn’t able to do it, and we lost thousands of dollars because of that,” Williams said. “I’m lucky that my parents, who are helping me pay for my school, are willing to kind of stick it out with me and wait to see if I’m going to get that appeal because, if not, I don’t know if I would even be able to keep going to school here.”

Williams is not the only student who has had these experiences. 

Casey Buttke, a fourth-year criminal justice and political science combined major and the current student body president, has also had trouble getting her mental health accommodations approved. 

Originally from Toronto, Buttke had not seen her therapist in a long time, so the DRC told her that her therapist could not give an accurate depiction of Buttke’s current mental state. Once she started working with a new therapist, the DRC never responded to her second request for extended time on assignments and tests, she said.

Buttke said this lack of communication may be particularly detrimental to new students as well as international students who may not be used to the way American systems function. If information could be made more readily accessible to students, she said people would have less challenges adjusting.

“You’re not changing the processes, you’re not changing anything within the office, but you’re just streamlining this process that can be incredibly daunting and incredibly overwhelming, especially when students are not local, or are already confused about moving to college,” Buttke said. 

Like Williams, Buttke was also unaware that WeCare staff are mandated reporters. She had reached out to them after struggling in classes as a result of trauma, but when she mentioned she was working with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, WeCare staff reported the situation to NUPD, which she said discouraged her from seeking further assistance. 

Colleges need to start paying more attention to students’ concerns, said Amy Reynolds, a professor of counseling psychology at the University of Buffalo Graduate School of Education and the current president of the Society of Counseling Psychology. Having spent 10 years of her career working in college students’ mental health, she urges administrators to provide more resources for health and counseling services on campus. 

“We’re in a perfect storm situation where many say that the other current pandemic is mental health,” Reynolds said. “While many counseling centers have made efforts to increase the number of staff and address these issues, in many colleges and universities that has not happened.”

Reynolds said that increasing visibility of resources for students is essential, in addition to spending time educating faculty and staff about these resources, so they know where to refer students. She also said that all offices on campus should begin to incorporate goals for student health and wellness into the work that they do. 

“It shouldn’t just be the work of the help center and the counseling center to address these needs, because, quite frankly, many students never make it to those settings,” Reynolds said. “They are talking to the professors; they are talking to their resident assistant; they are engaging with other people on campus … we have to create consciousness of what’s available and communicate effectively.”

Administrators should be invested in students’ wellbeing, Reynolds said, because it directly impacts their academic success. They should also be wary of professors violating federal law by denying students’ accommodations, which are often protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

It’s so hard for people with mental illness to do a lot of things and giving time and energy to getting an appointment to take care of yourself is really difficult, especially when you’re in a very intense depressive episode. Making it even harder to help ourselves or get an appointment is so frustrating and so unhelpful.”

— Alicia Vazquez

Khush Potdukhe, a third-year computer science major, shared that his mental and physical accommodations were treated differently, pointing to a disconnect in the way professors view mental and physical health. He entered Northeastern with mental health accommodations, so when he sustained a concussion later on, professors argued that he was asking for too much. 

“One of my professors, at a time when I wasn’t given accommodations, said, ‘I get the concussion, but before that, too, you weren’t doing well,’” Potdukhe said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, because I had a medical problem.’”

Other students have brought up issues with scheduling appointments after referrals from UHCS and receiving responses from DRC. 

Alicia Vazquez, a second-year biology and mathematics combined major, struggled to get follow-up appointments with a doctor who had prescribed her medication for depression. She had experienced negative side effects, including mood swings and worsened depression and anxiety, and she was heading into finals. When she finally got a response, he advised her to stay on the pills, which she said she now regrets. 

“It’s so hard for people with mental illness to do a lot of things and giving time and energy to getting an appointment to take care of yourself is really difficult, especially when you’re in a very intense depressive episode,” Vazquez said. “Making it even harder to help ourselves or get an appointment is so frustrating and so unhelpful.”

Vazquez also experienced problems trying to appeal the DRC’s rejection of her requested accommodations. She had asked for oral presentations in place of essays, and they offered her a solution of a reduced course load instead, which she said felt irrelevant. Now, they told her it may take up to 60 days to hear back, when she initially wanted the accommodation for summer classes. 

Students like Williams and Buttke are working to address these issues. They met in August via Zoom with representatives from UHCS, WeCare and the DRC, where they began to discuss potential solutions for improving communication and collaboration. 

Dr. Christine Civiletto, the interim executive director of UHCS, is grateful that students have expressed their concerns and is looking to increase transparency within her department.

“We’re really responding to the concerns that we’re hearing and making sure that students are able to access the resources because we know there are resources available, but what good are they if students don’t feel like they can quickly access them or if they feel confused about how to get to them?” Civiletto said. 

Civiletto has invited staff representatives from the DRC to speak with UHCS mental health clinicians about how the accommodations process works and how to direct students to the right place.

 She is also working on implementing a streamlined process for reaching out to UHCS patients for follow-ups. 

This past summer, Civiletto worked with the Office of the Provost to create a faculty guide for supporting students’ mental health. It features scripts for how to talk to students, tips on recognizing mental health problems and advice on when or when not to escalate. Civiletto said she is working to create similar guides for other campus partners, including Housing and Residential Life. UHCS has also onboarded new clinicians, including a dedicated triage team who can respond to urgent issues. 

Additionally, the free [email protected] counseling session limit has been lifted. Instead of having 10 free sessions, students now have unlimited access.

“We were hearing from students that it felt a little bit like a barrier, like ‘I don’t want to get started with a therapist if once I’m really into it that I have to switch to someone else or I have to figure out another way to pay for it,’” Civiletto said. “So, we worked pretty hard to make sure that we could lift that limitation, and now it’s unlimited sessions, free, no insurance, no copay.”

Despite these changes, however, Buttke said there is still a call to action for Northeastern’s administration to put a larger emphasis on students’ health.

“I really do think that where the petition will be most helpful is once we get to the administration to really show that this is something that students care about, and this is something that is really important,” Buttke said. “I think that right now, all the offices have shown that they are incredibly willing and ready to make changes, as much as they can. And so that’s amazing.”