Drexel Counseling Center, an inside perspective | The Triangle
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Drexel Counseling Center, an inside perspective

Photo by Evie Touring | The Triangle

The Drexel University Counseling Center hosts several programs dedicated to serving the mental health and counseling needs of Drexel students. Most notably, the center offers one-on-one therapy appointments with one of over 20 therapists. Three of these counselors are embedded at other Drexel groups: the Student Health Center, the athletics department and the Center for Black Culture. Students can schedule a 50 or 30 minute appointment in person, via email or phone call. Same day appointments are available, and other requests are usually filled within one to two days.

Mental health care has no one-size-fits-all solution. In an effort to suit the varied needs of students, the center offers a wide variety of services they refer to as a “flex model.” In addition to individual therapy, the center offers group therapy, couples therapy, peer counseling and workshops on mental health skills. The center also maintains a 24/7 crisis hotline for students needing urgent or after hours care.

According to Dr. Tania Czarnecki, the executive director of counseling, the flex model addresses diverse needs and allows students to get care faster: “You may have students that look for help in different ways… It’s important to… offer different services for different people, and I think with the model, we are able to get students in quicker.”

While the flex model creates a multitude of programs that can cover many different students’ needs, the center still has notable gaps in care. Students that need routine appointments or frequent care are referred out of Drexel’s counseling services. In addition, the center only hosts one part-time psychiatrist, and students wishing to seek psychiatric services are required to be in ongoing therapy.

Seeking outside care can be a difficult and stressful process. Therapists vary widely in their focus, training, qualifications and cost. These barriers to care affect economically disadvantaged and minority students to an even greater degree. Many therapists operate out of network and many are not specially trained to work with racially diverse, neurodivergent, LGBT or disabled patients. 

Amanda Luca, a fourth-year material science and engineering major was referred to outside care by the Counseling Center, who told her that her concerns were too long-term for their system of care. Luca, who uses Drexel’s health insurance policy, faced a confusing and costly process. Instead, she chose to postpone receiving care. 

Luca said her experiences with the Center “did nothing to make [her] feel included or cared for by Drexel.”

As well, while some students visiting the Center are able to meet with psychologists who hold doctoral degrees, other students see doctoral interns, who are currently in training.

One undergraduate student, who asked to remain anonymous, sought counseling during her first two weeks at Drexel. She was placed with a counselor in training, who she said did not give her the level of care she wanted. 

“It was, like, a comforting voice, and for some people that works, but what I was looking for was more higher level than that,” she said.

For some students, though, the goal-oriented short term counseling framework is very helpful. Khristina Cabrera, a first-year English major, went to the Center for advice regarding a friendship conflict. Her counselor in training was able to give her an unbiased space to discuss the problem. 

“I feel like it’s a good tool,” she said of the center, “especially since it’s included in our tuition.”

Unfortunately, many students who could benefit from Drexel’s counseling services are not seeking care. Currently, about 8 to 10 percent of the student body, undergraduate and graduate, use the counseling services in some capacity. According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, the national average utilization for campus counseling centers last year was 11 percent. While the proportion of students using counseling at Drexel is in line with the average, it doesn’t reflect the nearly 60 percent of college students who meet criteria for mental health problems, according to the Healthy Minds Study.

College students face a number of specific mental health concerns — academic and professional pressures, living independently for the first time and learning about their individual identities at a key developmental age. As well, external pressures are shown to exacerbate mental health issues, including politics, social media, increasing violence in schools and the continuing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Counseling Center is focusing on expanding outreach programs to ensure students know the resources available to them. Over the next few years, the center hopes to build a presence in University 101 classes, as well as introducing their own module into the online training students complete before arriving on campus.

“If there’s anything I can do, at a minimum, I want to make sure that all the students know that they can come here if they need to,” Czarnecki said.

Expanding awareness of the Counseling Center and its programs will not only encourage students to seek the care they need themselves, but also will give peers, faculty and staff more guidance on how to help a student who may be struggling. Many Drexel faculty are currently trained in the QPR — or question, persuade, refer — method of guiding a student into care. By providing this training to more staff as well as students, Drexel can create more opportunities to lead students towards counseling.

Other institutions have expanded this training into formal reporting systems. For example, at Penn State University, coaches, professors, academic advisors and even food service staff can raise concerns about a student. Even if they feel uncomfortable reaching out personally, they can recommend that more qualified mental health experts step in to get a student help.

Other current improvement projects at DUCC include streamlining the paperwork process for students. The center is listening to student feedback and attempting to make changes. Still, students continue to struggle, unable to receive the level of care they need. 

Drexel is not the only school whose counseling center is failing to meet the needs of all its students. Across the country, counselors report lacking the resources to address the increasing mental health concerns of students. 

With more funding, the center may be able to hire more doctoral psychologists and have more availability for consistent appointments. Unfortunately, while many of the center’s requests have been met, funding can still be difficult to acquire.

On a broader scale, the solutions to the center’s limitations require a shift in community priorities. Students could get more out of therapy with a support system of peers, professors and advisors. The Center’s UOkay? program encourages students to build community, destigmatize asking for help and start conversations about mental health. Similarly, if more resources were devoted to teaching students how to connect with their own mental health needs and the needs of the community, students could build the resources to get the most out of mental health care.

Czarnecki said, “If we just continue to do the work to build a community of care here, then I think we’re doing a better job of checking in with ourselves and our loved ones in the community.”

This article is part of a grant awarded to The Triangle from the Solutions Journalism Network investigating student mental health at Drexel University.