Letter to the Editor: MU Counseling Center policy is dangerous, misguided

July 2019 saw a merger between the Student Health Counseling Center and the MU Counseling Center. The mission of a “Short Term Therapy Model” -- in which therapy is limited to twelve or less sessions-- has been misappropriated by the MU Counseling Center to deny MU students who have previously secured therapy through the Student Health Counseling Center the right to access to further individualized therapy on campus. While students continue to pay student fees that funds services they no longer have access to, they are increasingly directed away from campus and to community therapists, which are often books three to six months out and may offer inappropriate therapy models. Is this policy dangerous? Yes, it is.

As a fifth-year-PhD student and teaching assistant at MU, I have referred a considerable number of students to therapy services on campus in good faith that these services would be fair and useful to students. However, the university’s new policies on counseling and mental health services are misguided at best and dangerous at worst.

In July 2019, there was a merger between the Student Health Counseling Services (a part the University of Missouri Hospital System) and MU Counseling Center. At that time, a new policy was established that places a cap on the number of counseling sessions students are allowed. Remarkably, this cap considers all sessions previously taken through the University of Missouri Hospital System. Previously, students were allowed three sessions a semester at the SHCS/UMHS and could elect for additional sessions through insurance.

Therefore, a student who took advantage of counseling through the Student Health Counseling Services prior to 2019 may no longer be eligible for individualized on-campus therapy services at MU. I was personally quoted by one therapist that the cap (unpublished, unofficial, yet enforced) was ten sessions. In this consideration, a student who took three free sessions, and an additional seven at their own expenses in one semester, at any point in their career, is no longer eligible for therapy. The new policies are retroactive and exclude students who made the decision to pursue on-campus therapy under an entirely different system.

Students seeking to restart their therapy at the Student Counseling Center now may experience the deeply uncomfortable situation of being paired with a new therapist, rather than the one with whom they've established a previous patient/counselor relationship, for a new intake evaluation. If the student has previously had therapy at either the SCC or SHCS, they may be told that they may not be a good fit for additional therapy, as they may have already reached their limit. Remarkably, the intake counselor at that time might be unable at that time to tell the student how many sessions they have had so that the student can make an informed decision. A student told that they may “not be a good fit” will then be guided to group therapy – of which I am told there is also a limited number of sessions students can attend — or told to seek therapy off campus at their own expense. Students have complained to me that off-campus therapists that are covered by Aetna Student Health Insurance are either not taking new patients or have waiting lists that are three to six months long. This is while students are still required to pay student fees that fund the Student Counseling Center, even if they are no longer allowed to use its services.

It is worth mentioning that a source confirmed to me that the the therapists currently working at the MUCS are deeply unhappy with this policy, which they have no choice but to enforce. In particular, I was told there were real concerns about a possible increase in student suicide. It was my impression that the therapists at the MUCS feel unable to freely and openly protest the situation. Therefore, I will state that it is my concern that MU does not appreciate the ramifications of a policy like this. There are already an incredible number of barriers between wanting therapy and securing therapy. Limiting the number of sessions a student can have to an arbitrary number, and in some cases (in what would seem to be) weeding out students who may need to consistently use the services by retroactively tallying any and all services taken at the Student Health Center, is perhaps the largest barrier to mental health care a school can design into policy. Off campus therapy – if a student can find it — will be cost prohibitive to many if not most students, who often do not have cars, are living on loans, and may come from family situations that are not supportive, or aware of, their decisions to seek mental health care. Policy makers also need to consider how some therapy needs cannot appropriately be met with group counseling.

MU’s new policies are unclear and will ultimately dissuade students who need and want therapy from obtaining therapy. 2019 saw a 20-year high in teen and young adult suicides. MU needs to understand that every day these policies continue, they are putting students’ lives at risk.

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