Counseling center

From 2000 to 2019, Counseling Center Director David Onestak said JMU saw a percentage growth of 48% in enrollment and 77% Counseling Center staff.

Despite misconceptions about the Center’s original statement, the Counseling Center hasn’t eliminated individual counseling sessions for students. According to JMU News, due to the high level of demand for services, the Center is no longer able to negotiate in situations where students would prefer individual counseling instead of a resource like group counseling that might better fit their needs. 

From 2000 to 2019, Counseling Center Director David Onestak said JMU saw a percentage growth of 48% in enrollment and 77% Counseling Center staff. On top of that, there’s been a 192% increase in Counseling Center clients in the same timeframe. 

When a student visits the Counseling Center for the first time, they meet with a clinician who determines what their next step will be that best meets the student’s needs. A referral is given that could include a service provided by the Counseling Center like individual counseling, group counseling or a specialized treatment program, an on-campus resource, or they could be referred to a Harrisonburg community provider.  

“We’re having to make really hard decisions sometimes because we don’t have the resources that we need to provide everybody,” Onestak said. “In many ways, I feel like our staff is totally in alignment with what students would say about this. It’s just that we’re the ones being forced to manage a level of demand with a supply of resources that don’t match up.” 

Academic concerns, anxiety, depression, grief and trauma are just some of the issues that the Counseling Center helps students handle. With issues like relationships, Onestak said that group therapy could serve to be more effective than individual counseling. Onestak said that relationships form when students realize that there are other students going through similar situations. 

“No place better to do that than in a group where those things can become part of the group process and people can get immediate feedback from people of their age group and pieces like that,” Onestak said. “Sometimes people think of [group counseling] as kind of watered-down individual therapy; it’s actually a whole different form of therapy. It’s robust in the research that indicates that it’s successful.” 

Junior media arts and design major Rachel Miller has been to the Counseling Center on-and-off since freshman year. Last year, she received individual counseling for eight to nine weeks and was set up with a psychiatrist at JMU who gave her medication for anxiety that helped “balance” her out. 

When she came back to school this year, the familiar pangs of anxiety crept in, and she realized that she needed another visit to the Center. Miller went during the first week of classes and had to wait for her first session for three weeks and another two weeks for her second session. Despite this, Miller still said that the Center has been a positive experience for her. 

“The Counseling Center is what has kept me at JMU,” Miller said. “I am not the sort of person to have the confidence to go out and find a therapist in Harrisonburg or something, so I think it’s an incredible resource. I just feel like they need to expand due to the higher demand.” 

Last year, the Counseling Center received approval for three new full-time clinicians to accommodate the increase of students according to Onestak. The search process was completed over the summer, and the clinicians are now working at JMU. 

“You don’t add three staff members in a department very often, of any type of department, so to do three in one year and still then have that not meet the need was, I think, a surprise for us,” Vice President for Student Affairs Tim Miller said. “But the staff has continued to work hard to figure out how do you make sure that the most need is met, but also that every student gets what they need at the level that they need it.” 

Rachel Miller said that her counselor mentioned group therapy and that she was open to the idea. But there was a waitlist, and she wasn’t sure when she would be able to get in.   

“I think for me especially, going into SSC, and you see how big some of the places are, and the Counseling Center is this tiny little corner,” Rachel Miller said. “I feel like especially with how stressful the college environment is and how academic stress is much more prominent, and that can cause a lot of mental health issues; I feel like three isn’t even enough.” 

Wendy Gerlach, coordinator of the Counseling Center’s Intake and Crisis systems, said that even though individual counseling won’t be available to everyone, she doesn’t want it to deter students from reaching out for help. Gerlach also said that the Center needs to look out for its counselors as well. 

“We also need to take care of ourselves as providers and not create a work situation where we are working 80 hours a week to meet the demand,” Gerlach said. “That’s just not a tenable situation.”   

Tim Miller said that the decision to no longer defer to students preferences of individual counseling over group counseling is a student-focused decision and that the “vast majority” of students will still be in an individual counseling environment.   

“But for some other students — that maybe what they’re facing is exactly what other students are facing — they will benefit from being in a group,” Tim Miller said. 

Junior psychology major Madi Sarlo had a “bumpy” transition to JMU as a transfer student and wanted to talk with someone about personal issues. She said the Counseling Center told her that they had a limited availability to provide individual counseling and that their recommendation was to refer her to someone in the community.    

She ended up not seeing anyone. 

Her reasons for not seeing anyone were the cost aspects and the effort to go off campus. Sarlo said that she ended up being “OK” and not needing counseling, eventually adjusting to school. 

“I worry about students who don’t have that same experience,” Sarlo said. “I worry about students who do really need to see someone, and now it’s not as accessible.” 

Sarlo recently tore a tendon in her shoulder and is receiving complimentary physical therapy through UREC. She couldn’t help but make the comparison to mental health.

“If that’s a resource that JMU could provide for me for free, like one-on-one physical therapy, I can go in three times a week, walk-in and fix my shoulder, then I’d love to see a day where we can have individual one-on-one psychotherapy at JMU as well,” Sarlo said. “If I can get this, I would hope that this mental health care can also be treated in the same way.” 

Despite the new changes, the walk-in hours and crisis hours at the Counseling Center will remain the same.   

“Most campuses across the country, they have a very strong-and-fast limit on the number of sessions you can get, and then you have to go off,” Tim Miller said. “There are some students that see someone for a very, very long time here. So we don’t have some of those, what I think are negative limits, that other schools have. We are trying to do everything we can to meet the need; it’s just hard to do so when the need continues to grow.”  

Contact Mitchell Sasser at sassermp@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.