Letter to the Editor: Mental Illness Care on Campus Must Improve

It has been about three months since two of my roommates and I have been trying to help our fourth roommate come to terms about getting help for whatever disorder is motivating her unhealthy eating and exercise habits.

Eating disorders are not an uncommon thing at Boston College, in a climate where Plexing for hours every day and eating some mouthfuls of lettuce afterwards can pass by the radar as seeming normal. After years of concern and over fifty hours of conversation between close friends, our RA, our RD, UCS, Campus Ministry, and the WRC, my roommate agreed to make an appointment with University Counseling Services.

The process of reaching out to UCS to get help for a serious mental illness has been the most disappointing experience of my time at Boston College. Unfortunately, I know that I am not the first person who has ever felt this way. It is simply unacceptable.

Before presenting resources to my friend to show her where she could go for help, I spent several afternoons visiting different places I had been pointed towards, one of which was UCS. I met with a psychologist there who gave me her business card and told me that when my friend was ready, she could email her directly to make an appointment. That turned out to be false. When she finally did agree to send the email—which was an incredibly difficult step for her—she was told that she needed to call to make the appointment, and then was told on the phone that she needed to schedule a 15 minute triage call where she described the nature of her problem first. Thereafter, the secretary also told her that the first appointment she had was during the last week in April—nearly one month from then. This made her very uncomfortable; she started hysterically crying at the thought, and hung up the phone. “What am I even supposed to say?” she asked me and our roommates.

As the next week went by and her state continued on its downward trajectory, I felt terrible that I had told her about a process that proved to be untrue, and made her feel like UCS was not able to help her. In reflection, I realized that her reaction to the triage phone call protocol was not over-dramatic at all. How can a university expect students with mental illnesses to have to tell a stranger their problems on the phone? The secretary or whoever was managing the calls that day did not sympathize with her discomfort with the policy at all. I cannot imagine that my friend is the first person for whom it took an immense amount of courage to reach out to try to schedule an appointment with UCS. Subsequently, I cannot imagine that she is the first person to feel VERY uncomfortable with a phone call triage policy.

Mental illness is not the same as physical illness—someone is not just going to pick up the phone and say to a stranger “I think I need to come in because I have an eating disorder” the way they can say “I need an appointment with a doctor because my knee hurts.” This should be common sense to people who are trained in counseling and psychological disorders. Sure, there may be students who are comfortable going through the triage phone call with UCS, but if they are not, there MUST be an alternative. This one policy can effectively push people away from entering the process to get help because they cannot get past the phone call. It is absolutely not too much to ask to be seen in person.

In addition, there should never under any circumstance be a month-long wait to receive mental illness care. There is a 24-hour psychologist on call, but that person is not even physically at Boston College, and also must be reached via the telephone. Students are told that they can call the POC if there is an emergency—well with eating disorders, when exactly is there an emergency? How are we supposed to diagnose at what point her body may cease to function because of malnutrition and over-exercise so that she can qualify to be treated by the POC?

My roommates and I expressed our frustrations with the policies and backlog of appointments at UCS to some of the people we had been receiving guidance from—our RA and RD, and Campus Ministry. Each of them told us that UCS has been experiencing an “exponential number of requests for services in the past few weeks” and that they are “understaffed, overbooked, and overworked, but this does not mean they don’t want to help [our] friend”. While all of this might be true, it is absolutely NOT an acceptable justification for the situation.

I can think of very few things that BC should be spending its money on instead of University Counseling Services, which takes care of the mental well-being of its students. Someone in campus ministry told me in a stern voice, “well, they can’t just snap their fingers and hire more people because of this influx.” That might also be true, but there are other alternatives. If someone had a physical injury that BC’s health services could not handle, they would quickly refer the student out to another doctor. University Counseling should immediately provide students with alternative options for help if they do not have enough staff to see every student who needs help in a timely manner. Furthermore, UCS should be providing vouchers or some sort of compensation for referral services to students because it is not the students’ fault that UCS cannot see them in proper time. University Counseling Services’ inaction on these fronts shows a fundamental misunderstanding of mental illness—unlike physical injuries, mental illnesses can wait, it seems.

Frustrated with what my friend was being put through, I sent a long email to the doctor who I had seen at UCS months before, inquiring as to why she was being told differently than I was, and why there was no alternative to the phone call triage. It just didn’t make sense to me—if they already know the nature and severity of the problem, why do they need to hear it again anyway?

After several more email correspondences and two frustrating phone calls with the POC, my friend was scheduled for an appointment in two weeks. By that time, there will only be a few weeks left in the semester, and who knows if that will be enough to make any progress at all.

There are several issues here that are endangering students’ well-being: understaffing, a lack of solutions to backlog, insensitive policies and miscommunication between staff. There should be enough counselors on staff at all times such that even with a sharp increase in calls for help, every student can be seen the week that they call. Can you imagine if you called University Health Services because of a physical illness and they told you that the next appointment was in a month? No, absolutely not. That would be ridiculous, and so is that scenario replaced with a mental illness.

If there is backlog at UCS in certain circumstances that cannot be planned for, there should be a protocol in place for getting students to other free resources as soon as possible. There should also be a plan for hiring staff to help on a temporary basis during these extra-busy times. If any such protocols exist, they were certainly not implemented during my experience.

The phone call triage policy may be an effective method of getting students to the right counselors based on their situations, but there MUST be an alternative to this policy if students are not comfortable with talking to a stranger on the phone. The phone call policy cannot push away students who already find it very emotionally challenging to reach out for help in the first place.

Finally, it was discovered during my final correspondence with the POC and the psychologist I had been speaking to at UCS that my friend should have been put on a list of students who could make direct appointments with that psychologist. However, the staff answering the phones and making the appointments was not aware of this. Such an error is unacceptable when dealing with such sensitive matters, and can cause harm. If it was not for the persistence of my roommates and me, our friend could have never called back and never gotten help, and therefore become more ill.

It is the responsibility of Boston College to take care of the students who attend school here and live on their premises. If the issues at UCS are a consequence of under-funding, then you know what? Increasing funds for University Counseling Services should be coming before any steps in that 10 year renovation plan. We can live without some new classrooms for much longer than we can without proper, accessible mental health care.

-Alexandra R., Boston College Class of 2015