HCC Counseling in Disarray

Staff departures and administrative restructuring affect availability of counseling services at the HCC

Last spring, the day-to-day operations of the Health and Counseling Center (HCC) were suddenly derailed when Interim Director David Ochoa abruptly left Reed. Departing under mysterious circumstances, Ochoa, who was in charge of hiring and managing staff members at the HCC, left one of the most significant on-campus resources for students in disarray.

Since Ochoa’s departure, a number of additional staff vacancies at the HCC have left the clinic’s counseling services woefully understaffed and struggling to meet the demand of students who need help. The current restructuring and staff shortage has left the HCC unable to provide the mental health treatment that students need, creating significant confusion about the services currently available to students. Despite the turnover of the counseling staff, the HCC’s medical and non-psychiatric services are still fully functional.

While in recent years the HCC has generally had a high turnover rate, an anonymous source told the Quest, “there has been a large loss of staff (particularly over this past year) due to harm from administration and previous HCC leadership. There was no support from [the] administration to repair that harm and there was no plan to replace inadequate leadership with someone who could take [the HCC] in the direction that [it] needed to go.” 

Student Body Senator and liaison to the HCC Billy Fish explained another reason for high turnover rates. “One of the challenges of keeping counselors and other medical professionals at the HCC is that it’s just not that lucrative compared to other employers, so a lot of people at the HCC are part time because they’re working at other places, other medical groups that can pay them a higher wage, and so a lot of people just leave because they get better jobs.”

Because of staff shortages, the HCC has been offering limited services, primarily helping students find off-campus care. According to the HCC website, there are “a small number of openings for ongoing therapy for students experiencing extreme hardship related to accessing care in the community.” In an email to the Reed community on September 10, Vice President of Student Life Mike Brody said “counseling staff may provide short-term care, and refer students to other Reed resources and/or community providers as appropriate.” Despite assurances that the HCC would continue to offer emergency care, during the week of September 16, the counseling side of the HCC was closed, offering no walk-in or emergency appointments. This was not directly communicated with the student body, only posted on the HCC website. 

While more students are having to go off-campus now, even while at full capacity, students are only able to see a counselor every other week. “If you have a higher level of need, you’ve always needed to go off-campus,” said Student Body President Pax Lloyd-Burchett. He added, “the problem with that is that a lot of [off-campus] counselors have pretty lengthy waiting lists. Also, for a student to find a counselor off-campus takes a lot of energy and it’s a huge additional barrier to receive counseling.”

On the topic of student accessibility of the HCC, Fish explained that “if a person comes to the HCC and the HCC is unable to provide them [with] the counseling care that they need, they definitely feel it’s their obligation to get people that care, and because of the lack of counselors, the only way they can do that is by finding care off campus.” He added, “if it was a possibility, everyone I’ve talked to at the HCC would love to be able to provide therapy to anyone at Reed who wants it, but that’s just not realistic.” In comparison to other similarly sized colleges, Reed has a significantly higher demand for mental health treatment. As such, “they’re never going to be able to hire enough counselors to meet that demand. The goal is to accommodate people as much as they can, but they [also] want to be better at referring people off-campus.” For students with health insurance through Reed, there is a $20 co-pay per appointment with an off-campus in-network mental health provider. If the co-pay creates a barrier, the HCC has funds set aside to help students. 

Senior Nick Chaiyachakorn has started a support group for Reedies to discuss mental health concerns, called NAMI@Reed. Chaiyachakorn, who has previously received mental health support and treatment from the HCC, said, “there are wonderful and empathetic front-line staff at the HCC, but they’re overworked and under-resourced.” He believes, “we don’t talk about mental health enough at Reed, or getting help for mental health, especially to minorities who’ve never had access to treatment, or a culture of receiving treatment. The HCC, which offers its services for free, should be doing a good job there to help people in theory. But instead no one usually finds out what services the HCC offers until it’s too late, and now that they’re finding it closed, they’re no longer going to trust the HCC.” He’s very concerned about the current state of the HCC. “I’m seeing a lot of people who don’t trust the HCC, who think it’s flaky, who don’t believe they’re going to get proper counseling there. And no one’s working to rebuild that reputation right now.” 

Chaiyachakorn has also been unimpressed by the administration’s response. While the issues with the HCC have been going on since the beginning of the semester, “it took a few weeks for Mike Brody to send an email. For a service that is a lifeline to quite a few Reedies, this isn’t acceptable. Nor is it acceptable that the HCC [was] closed last week even to walk-ins and emergencies — without informing the student body.” 

While it cannot replace the services provided by the HCC, Chaiyachakorn hopes NAMI@Reed can provide some support for students struggling with mental health concerns. “The NAMI support group is a peer support group for students facing mental health issues. Sometimes this means venting about your challenges. But sometimes this also means, for a lot of people, learning about the mental health system in the first place from peers.” During this time of confusion with the HCC, the group is also “about advocating for students with mental health issues during this time of change, and pushing the new Director of Counseling and Associate Dean of Student Health and Wellness to make the HCC more prominent at Reed. Ideally, the HCC would have a public presence at Reed, [and] would be out there in Commons tabling and talking to students about mental health.” He added, “Reedies should learn what services the HCC claims to offer, and feel entitled to them.”

Currently, the new Medical Director has started working. The Associate Dean of Student Health and Wellness and the Counseling Director have been hired but have not begun work. The HCC expects to be sufficiently staffed starting the week of October 6 when some new hires begin and staff on leave return. Likely, they will be able to see a limited number of students shortly after. After the arrival of the Counseling Director, expected later in the semester, they will release a new scope of practice detailing the services they will provide. 

At the same time, the administration is trying to change the structure of the HCC as well as its connection to other services meant to support students’ well-being. Changes proposed to the internal structure of the HCC will establish a new leadership team with a Medical Director, a Counseling Director, and an Administrative Manager. Previously, there was only one HCC Director and an Administrative Manager. Externally, as part of the larger restructuring of the Division of Student Life, the HCC, along with SHARE (formerly SAPR), Athletics, Fitness and Outdoor Programs, and an expanded Wellness Program, will be managed under a new position, the Associate Dean of Student Health and Wellness.

The new structure of the Division of Student Life will allow additional focus on wellness, in part through the creation of a new position focused on directing students to avenues of self-care on campus. Fish said, “there’s a culture of taking on too many things to the point that it’s detrimental to the things that you’re trying to do. And I think part of the shift to this new model, and having somebody who’s hired to think about wellness, is to shift that culture and say that taking care of your mental and physical health is an essential part of the student experience.” According to Fish, this new emphasis on wellness will hopefully be “sort of a preventative approach.” 

At the date of publication, the HCC is offering phone triage. However, students should visit the HCC website, which is updated daily, for the most recent information. According to their website, “students should call the HCC front desk, 503-777-7281, and request to speak with a counselor, who will be able to assist with resources.” They expect they will be able to offer a limited number of same day appointments and walk-ins starting next week (September 30). The Reed counseling hotline is available 24/7 at 866-432-1224 and the Multnomah County crisis line is also available 24/7 at 503-988-4888. For updates on the HCC and other resources, students should refer to the HCC website at reed.edu/health_center. Senator and liaison to the HCC Billy Fish hosts weekly office hours from 1–2 p.m. on Mondays in Commons and is available by email at wfish@reed.edu. NAMI@Reed will meet biweekily on Sundays at 8 p.m. starting Sunday, October 6. For more information, contact Nick Chaiyachakorn at nicchaiy@reed.edu. If you, or someone you know, is having a medical emergency or immediate mental health issue, contact 911 and Community Safety at 503-788-6666.

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