Students Question Mental Health Support

Members of the Claremont University Consortium (CUC) often grace lists of the happiest colleges in the United States, and the colleges’ websites and admissions materials prominently feature sunny skies and beaming students. But these carefree images fail to convey another reality: Approximately one out of every six students at the Claremont Colleges sought mental health care on campus last year.

Monsour Counseling and Psychological Services, the mental health care service provider for CUC, offers “a safe, supportive and confidential environment for students to work through a range of psychological and emotional issues,” wrote Gary DeGroot, director and chief psychologist of Monsour, in an email to TSL.

Some students who have gone through Monsour’s counseling process question how safe and supportive the environment is, however.

“I think the climate that I see there as far as taking severe mental illness and suicidal thoughts seriously in a college environment is laughable compared to all the professionals I've been to,” Aidan Harley SC '16 said.

Megan Petersen SC '15, who turned to Monsour after suffering a mental breakdown in October 2013, also questioned the effectiveness of their treatment.

After gathering the courage to call the emergency on-call therapist, Petersen scheduled her first—and last—appointment at Monsour.

"I told [the therapist] that I hadn't been able to function for weeks, how I was having thoughts of suicide, and she basically said, 'You sound like you need a day off,'" Petersen said.

This diagnosis destroyed the courage and motivation that Petersen had gathered to visit Monsour in the first place.

"Anyone telling me there's nothing wrong, that I can handle this on my own, made me think, 'Oh my God, I can't even handle this. This is terrible. I'm an awful person,'" Petersen said. "That's a completely different mindset that's not me that was really terrible and scary."

Petersen said that the Monsour staff did not provide her with the names of any recommended practitioners nearby, so she called the first person she found on the Internet. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder the following month.

In experiencing mental health problems, Harley and Petersen are far from alone. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that one in four young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 has a diagnosable mental illness.

According to an annual report for the 2012-2013 academic year, Monsour saw 1,127 of the roughly 6,300 students at the Claremont Colleges during the academic year, a 9.2 percent increase from the previous year. These 1,127 students made 5,030 appointments at Monsour.

In the same year, Monsour made 300 emergency contacts with students, both during the day and after hours, and assisted with 23 hospitalizations.

“Mental illness is far more widespread than people want to admit, particularly for people who are in their late teens or early 20s and in really stressful environments,” Harley said.

Harley, who has been diagnosed with an eating disorder, depression, anxiety disorder, and bipolar II disorder, also felt unsafe being treated at Monsour. She decided to try the psychiatric and group therapy care at Monsour in fall 2013, but stopped attending because she felt the staff was not experienced enough. 

DeGroot wrote in an email to TSL that the Monsour staff includes 12 mental health professionals: seven licensed clinical psychologists, one marriage and family therapist intern, two post-doctoral fellows who are not yet licensed, and two doctoral student interns. Monsour also employs a contracted psychiatrist, a receptionist, and an administrative assistant, and is in the process of contracting another psychiatrist.

“Some of our staff have been with [Monsour] for over 6 years and most have at least 3 years at the Claremont Colleges,” DeGroot wrote. “Our contracted Psychiatrist is board certified and has been with the center for about 10 years. I have been here for 18 years.”

He added that he considers Monsour to be “very effective,” and that “it offers a place to discuss issues and find coping skills to deal with a variety of issues adding to a better quality of life.”

Laura River PO '15, who went to Monsour during her first year to get a referral for long-term therapy off campus, found the experience to be largely unhelpful despite her therapist’s academic qualifications.

“I sat down with somebody who apparently had a Ph.D., and she kind of interrogated me for half an hour about why I was depressed,” River said. “I didn't really know the answer to that, which is why I wanted to explore that in therapy. I felt really attacked, and I left in a really bad state.”

The therapist eventually provided the referral River was looking for, but River left unsatisfied with her experience.

“She printed out a random sheet of names when I insisted that I wanted to see an outside provider and gave me no guidance about who might be good, who would accept my insurance, how to get there, how much it cost,” River said. “It was just very unhelpful. I felt ashamed for having gone there.”

Harley was also displeased with Monsour’s referral process.

“I had to find my own therapist,” she said. “I had to look really hard for my own therapist. I had to search for months for my own therapist and confer back with my recovery team at home.”

However, Colin Belanger PO '14, president of the 5C Mental Health Alliance (MHA), said that he has not heard of “any terribly bad experiences,” noting that Monsour has been useful for him and others.

“When I got an appointment there, it took around two weeks, which seems to be the average for people,” Belanger said.

Petersen also scheduled an appointment for about two weeks after she first established contact with Monsour. 

However, the Monsour website states that appointments “can usually be scheduled within 1 week.”

Louie Lemus PO '15 said that she has gone to Monsour about four times and has called the on-call psychologist at Monsour twice, but has not been impressed by the service provided.

“One of the better experiences I’ve heard [regarding Monsour] is, ‘Well, it didn’t make things worse,’” Lemus said. “I don’t think that’s a sign of high effectiveness of how Monsour is doing.”

In her case, she left Monsour without feeling like she was given any tools for changing her thoughts or improving her mood.

“Honestly, if they’re going to be short-term, they’re going to need to provide some clear tools or ways of engaging with those sorts of negative thoughts,” Lemus said.

Lemus also said that Monsour caters to a specific kind of student: cisgender, white, well-off students with mild depression or homesickness.

“There’s a sense that Monsour is not equipped to do care that’s flexible; it’s for a particular group of people in a particular manner,” Lemus said. “And that’s not helpful for the kind of care that’s needed on the campuses, especially at the level of severity that I’ve heard has occurred and is occurring on the campuses.”

Student organizations like the MHA are involved in pushing Monsour to provide more resources and changing the campus climate around mental health.

“A lot of people don’t talk about it,” Belanger said. “It’s always an issue that’s a little bit below the surface, and I guess part of what we hope to do as an organization is kind of make that something that will be talked about.”

Lemus suggested that greater transparency and more student input could help to bridge the gap between what students expect and what Monsour provides.

“If the administration honestly wants to tout itself truthfully, or at least less superficially, it needs to honestly start confronting where it is lacking or at least start doing things like feedback systems,” she said. “I think that would be a simple way for students to have agency over what resources are given and in seeing what the actual consortium is doing in terms of money allocation.”

Bonnie Clemens, assistant to the CUC chief executive officer, wrote in an email to TSL that funding for student services such as Monsour is determined by the Student Deans Committee and the presidents of the Claremont Colleges. CUC chooses not to make its budget available to the public.

Despite not knowing the exact budget, Harley believes that many of Monsour’s problems can be traced to a lack of funding.

“We have so much money here that we should be investing in this as a campus resource if we are truly going to be about improving students' quality of life," she said.

Monsour has not seen any funding cuts in recent years, according to DeGroot. In fact, it has obtained additional funding to hire another clinical staff member for the 2014-2015 academic year, in addition to two mental health providers hired in 2009-2010.

River said that the issue lies not with the number of clinicians, however, but with the quality of care provided.

“I don't think we can hire enough therapists to do long-term therapy for everyone in the community who needs it,” River said. “But changing the campus environment around mental health has to start with people who know how to approach people who are struggling.”

Petersen and Harley believe that Monsour should do more to educate the community on mental health, much like what the consortium’s Health Education Outreach office does.

"I would have really liked to see more, because as a first-year or sophomore, before I got diagnosed, I would just have liked to have that toolbox for when I was going through it all," Petersen said.