Princeton is not conducive to good mental health. Even if you enter freshman year mentally and emotionally stable, chances are good that you will suffer stress, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, or grief (or more than one of the above) during your time here. If you enter freshman year with problems, then you’re up the proverbial shit creek, and University Health Services is not going to throw you a paddle.
My own history with McCosh counseling services has been a frustrating and disappointing one. My freshman year I scheduled a counseling appointment for depression, and the counselor told me that I was just dealing with grief issues from my mother’s death, though she never addressed the fact that many of the issues I had were present before my mother ever got sick.
Sophomore year I tried again. This time I visited a psychiatrist who, after four sessions, told me that I seemed to be doing fine, and that I didn’t need medication or further counseling. By the beginning of my junior year, I was so depressed that I took the year off, knowing I could get much better treatment at home.
I came back to school balanced and happy, and on new medication. No one from the counseling center or the dean’s office ever contacted me to make sure that I was readjusting well, but I felt mostly fine, so I didn’t care. Several months into the year, however, I began to notice the side effects of my medication: anxiety and panic attacks. I would hyperventilate and sob uncontrollably. I was unable to breathe, let alone write a paper. I braced myself and went back to the counseling center. Instead of recommending that I switch to a medication that would control anxiety, the counselor told me “just try to calm down and do your work.”
This year, I realized that I needed to start a new medication, so I once again called McCosh. They scheduled a consultation with a psychologist for two weeks later, and it was only after seeing her that I could arrange a consultation with a psychiatrist who could prescribe medication. The meeting with the psychiatrist was supposed to have been a week later, but the day before the appointment I got an email saying that the doctor had cancelled, and the earliest available appointment was December 21. Not only was this a month away, but it was during winter break. I called and demanded an earlier appointment. I’m still waiting to hear back.
I wish I could say that my experiences with the counseling center have been uniquely bad, but anecdotal evidence points to an endemic problem; most everyone I’ve spoken to has had similar experiences. Only a very small number of people I asked gave me positive reviews of their counseling experience. One friend had been dealing with sexuality issues freshman year, and said that counseling was a “Princeton-career-saving experience.” Another said that stress counseling was “pretty helpful.”
For the most part, though, students have found counseling services here to be patently unhelpful.
The website for the Counseling and Psychological Services at McCosh begins with an insipid introduction: “University life is full of rich opportunities for intellectual and personal growth. It also can be a stressful time and generate academic, interpersonal, and emotional concerns.” The site goes on to cheerily declare that “all currently enrolled undergraduate and graduate students at Princeton University are welcome to use CPS services.” They neglect to mention that each student is only entitled to six free sessions, only hinting that “open-ended or extended treatment services cannot be routinely offered and therefore are limited.” Meaning: if you have a problem that’s going to take more than the arbitrary six sessions, seek help elsewhere.
As one student told me, “For those students who struggle with depression and anxiety problems while at Princeton, it seems silly to think that six sessions is enough to solve any mental health issue. Particularly in the cases where the student cannot afford to see a private therapist, isn’t the school asking for trouble by turning students away who expect their support?”
The problem is, of course, that the counseling center is gravely under-staffed. Of all the students I talked to, not one remembered being able to schedule an appointment with less than a week’s notice, and two or three-week delays were common. Counselor’s schedules are packed, leading to assembly-line therapy. One student said, “I found their attention to my needs emphasized the quickest solution rather than dedicated attention to my struggle.” Another reiterated, “I felt like another name to be checked off the list.”
In this situation, it is the students most seriously in need of treatment – namely those with serious and ongoing depression – who are left feeling abandoned. A student from the class of ‘05 notes that he and many of his friends felt worse after visiting McCosh. “So many people walk out of McCosh feeling an increased sense of helplessness, which is the first thing you need to combat with depressives – helping them to know/to feel that there is help out there.” In certain extreme cases, students have complained of counselors screaming at them, insulting them, and even throwing phones at them.
The students who are (in my very biased opinion) the most underserved are those who take time off from Princeton. Many more students than you probably think take time off (the facebook.com tells us that the group “Too Cool for School” has 60 members, “Class of 2006.5” has 18, and “Better Part of the Decade” has 8, though there’s some overlap in there). It has been suggested – and not by me – that if the university had had a better counseling service, some of those students might have stayed and sought help here. Regardless, any time a student takes time away from school – even if it’s not for psychological reasons – there is a difficult readjustment period. The fact that neither the dean’s office nor the counseling services makes any attempt to reach out to these students is unconscionable.
As university students, we know that we’re “big kids” now – no one packs our lunches or makes dentist appointments or writes us excuses when we’re too stoned to go to class. No one is under any direct obligation to make sure that we’re happy and mentally stable. However, it is in Princeton’s best interest to provide adequate care for those students who do seek it, and particularly to reach out to those students who have had difficulty or have taken time off in the past. Princeton does its student body a very serious disservice by neglecting to provide counseling and psychological services that are timely, helpful, and long-term.