The University of Alabama

Because No One Needs to Feel Alone: Counseling Center Equips Faculty, Staff to Help Students

Leaving home. Adjusting to dorm life. Coping with academic demands. Defining one’s identity. Such adjustment and transition issues are something all students face, but they do not have to be faced alone. UA students have a network of resources to help them when life feels overwhelming. One resource is the Counseling Center, located in the South Lawn Office Building off Paul Bryant Drive, secluded a bit from the bustle of central campus.

The Center is accredited by the International Association of Counseling Services, and the Center’s executive director, Dr. Lee Keyes, sits on the IACS board of directors. Keyes is soft-spoken, as one might expect of a counselor, but also passionate about developing a campus culture where all members look out for each other, and no student feels alone. Nor should faculty and staff feel alone when concerned about a student. Just as the Center offers resources to students, it offers resources to help faculty and staff identify students who may be distressed, approach those students, and, if needed, refer those students to the Center.

The Counseling Center works with departments across campus to help develop what Keyes called “an ethic of caring.” Each college and division has a mental health liaison who facilitates working with the Counseling Center. Among other tasks, the liaisons encourage faculty and staff to complete MentalHealthEdu, an online program to train users to identify and refer students in distress. The program, consisting of three brief modules, can be completed in about 30 minutes and does not have to be finished in one session.

The skills learned in MentalHealthEdu equip faculty and staff to provide help to students, something that University employees sometimes hesitate to do, Keyes said. “It’s similar to learning CPR, which is a simple set of skills that anyone can do when there is a need, until other help can arrive. You don’t have to be a doctor to perform CPR and you don’t have to be a counselor to reach out to a student who seems to be struggling.”

One of the fastest growing services offered by the Center is consultation. A consultation is a contact or discussion held with a third party – faculty, staff, student, parent or others – who is concerned about a student. These concerns could range from parents worried that their student is homesick to a student who wants to confront a friend about binge drinking.

The Center has functioned on campus since 1992, but counseling services were offered to UA students for decades prior. In the aftermath of WWII, veterans flooded college campuses. War and the stresses of adjusting to a post-war life on campus created a need for ways to help veterans cope. UA was one of many schools that responded to this need by offering counseling services.

In a post-911 world, students are also more prone to come to campus with heightened stress levels. Coupled with an often intense pressure to succeed, that stress can lead to depression and anxiety. According to a 2006 report by National College Health Assessment, 42 percent of college students felt so depressed it was hard to function.

“My counterparts and I across the country agree that there is more prevalence of mental health issues among students due to increased stress,” Keyes said. But he has also seen a decrease in the stigma attached to going to counseling. Students are more willing to ask for help, often after looking online for resources.

“We are likely to identify the students as dealing with depression, anxiety or an adjustment disorder, but they come in and use the umbrella term of stress,” Keyes said. “They don’t say they are having trouble transitioning from home or managing their time. They say, ‘I’m just really stressed.’” Center staff help students to move past that general term to identify what is bothering them and how they can cope successfully.

“We stress emotional health, wellness, coping with problems in living,” Keyes said. “Our mission is to help students succeed academically and grow personally. To succeed academically they need to have successful coping methods.” Among the Center’s 22 employees are several counseling graduate students who usually serve one-semester practicums or two-semester internships. Supervised by the Center’s licensed mental health staff, the graduate students lead individual counseling sessions and co-facilitate group sessions. Together, full-time staff and graduate students conduct about 5,500 counseling visits annually.

In addition to counseling, the Center offers outreach services. Academic units, departments, residence halls and other campus entities may request a Center staff member to deliver a presentation on some topic of mental health or coping with the transition to college life. About 15,000 contacts are made annually through outreach efforts.

To find out more about outreach, consultation and counseling services, and to access the MentalHealthEdu training, visit counseling.ua.edu.