Semester-long waitlist for mental health help at college where student killed himself

A student suicide on Rowan University’s campus is leading to calls for improved mental health services at the institution, as the community mourns.

The suicide happened at the Rowan Boulevard parking garage around 6 a.m. Monday, the last day of classes before final exams began.

The university released a statement about the incident on Wednesday morning.

Students were trying to make sense of what happened during a stressful time of the year.

“I’m still sick over the fact that somebody really thought it was the best option, that ending their life was the best way to solve their problems,” said Jamie Cheeka, a health and physical education student at Rowan.

The problem

The incident was enough to get students talking, especially on social media, about experiences where they felt scared, depressed, stressed — and then the difficulties in getting counseling.

Eric Smith, an accounting and finance major from Moorestown, said he last visited the counseling center at Rowan about 2 years ago to address anxiety problems that he figures he had been dealing with since middle school.

“They more or less told me, ‘I understand what you’re dealing with, but the only I thing I can do is put you on a waitlist or in group therapy,'” Smith said.

He wasn’t comfortable with group therapy, so he didn’t show up again for awhile. He went back a few months ago, signed up for group therapy, and dropped out after a few sessions. He felt that he needed something more individualized.

Two other students NJ Advance Media spoke with expressed similar concerns — they arrived at the Wellness Center seeking counseling, only to be put on a waitlist or in group therapy.

“It’s important to break the stigma and understand that getting help for mental health is really important, but we have to be confident in where we’re getting help from,” said Jamie Cheeka, a health and physical education major.

Cheeka said she visited the counseling center during an incredibly tough stretch earlier in her college career: she was in some of her most difficult classes, and then her mother received a cancer diagnosis. On top of that, a long relationship she was in ended suddenly. The stress and sadness were piling on.

She showed up at the wellness center hoping someone could talk her through the tough time. But she was put on the waitlist, which at that time was months long, she said.

“I wasn’t going to end my life,” Cheeka said. “But the thoughts were there, the sadness was there, and I felt like I just needed someone to talk to and I got turned away.”

The counselors

Dr. Amy Hoch, associate director of counseling at the university, acknowledged that the waitlist for treatment is long, and sometimes counselors don’t make it through the whole waitlist in a given semester.

When a student comes in, a staff member at the counseling center does a “triage” to assess the level of treatment a student would need, and determine if they need something right away, or a weekly or bi-weekly appointment.

And sometimes, group therapy is considered the best option.

In crises such as a student suicide, additional counselors are dispatched from the Stratford campus, and employees from other departments are trained a few times a year to handle counseling as part of the “smart team.” That team goes around to clubs or classes that might be affected by such an event and offers support

There’s also a service called “Let’s Talk,” where students can drop in to a few different sites on campus for informal counseling, without committing to an appointment schedule.

Hoch, who has been at Rowan since 2010, said the counseling staff has grown from 4 to 14.5, hiring at least one counselor a year since she’s been there.

“The best practice is that you should have one counselor for every 1,500 students,” Hoch said.

Rowan’s total enrollment is about 18,500 this year.

“We certainly tried to meet that need, and so we’re kind of barely at that minimum,” she said. “And when there are more stressful times like finals, or transition times like the beginning of the year, you can imagine the need is even greater.”

Petitions

Niq Giordano, a senior computer science major, said he had often heard other students complaining about having trouble getting help at the university counseling center.

Then on Monday, after hearing that a classmate had taken their own life, he created a petition on change.org, calling for mental health services at Rowan to be improved. The petition now has about 1,600 signatures.

“You constantly see stuff about how Rowan’s growing, there’s new buildings, we have 18,000 some students,” Giordano said. “As we admit more students, the issue is going to continue to grow.”

“I don’t want any of my classmates hurting.”

Summer Dixon, a graduate student in criminal justice, also created a petition to call attention to the long waitlist and what she feels is a need for more counseling options at the university.

After being diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder in her undergrad career, she felt like she needed someone to talk to.

“I was going down a path that I thought was dangerous for myself, and they said ‘the waitlist is four months,'” Dixon said.

“I just think, what if I was a person who was suicidal, but I didn’t tell them everything, and they sent me away?”

She’s glad that the counseling staff has grown, but hopes the university could add more and be a model for mental health treatment on college campuses.

“I get one-on-one [treatment] for every possible Rowan student is not really achievable,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that we can’t make some changes here.”

Part of a growing trend

Colleges and universities across the nation reported an increase in mental health treatment visits over the past five years, said Dr. Ben Locke, of Penn State’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health. And the growth in use is at a pace many times the growth of the institutions’ student body, he said.

And the increase was mostly composed of students who reported that they were thinking about harming themselves, Locke said.

He said this increase is likely due to the coming of age of a generation raised with suicide prevention messages coming through in school, in public service announcements and on campus.

“Literally hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on suicide prevention,” he said, leading to people who think they might need help seeking it out and contributing to the increasing demand for services.

“That really makes it so that when a suicide does occur, it’s even more of a tragedy, because so many people are putting in effort to prevent them.”

At the same time, suicide among college students is still rare, and students commit suicide at a rate lower than the general population, he said.

“We have to be careful about overgeneralizing our fears, our worries, about suicide. It should be treated as a tragic event that is not super common.”

Students should seek help

Hoch was glad students were advocating for improvements to mental health services. But at the same time, she hopes criticism of the counseling offered will not deter students who need help from seeking it.

“The message being sent could lead to a student maybe thinking about coming, to say, ‘well I can’t walk in there, or they don’t want to see me, or they don’t have enough people to see me,” Hoch said.

“Hopefully we can both advocate for better mental health services here but also tell students, if you are having a problem, please come in and see us.”

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