In need of immediate help, junior elementary education major Rachel Fischer sought emergency assistance from the USF Counseling Center. When the brief call ended, she felt as if she was stranded to figure things out on her own despite her situation not improving.
“I remember calling and getting a random therapist one time when I was in a state of emergency and needed to talk to someone,” she said. “They set me up with a random therapist and that therapist literally only talked to me for 20 minutes when I was going through a panic attack and just kind of left me hanging.
“I remember hanging up the phone and thinking ‘Wow, what a waste of time.’ It would have been better to just call my mom.”
Fischer said this wasn’t the first time she had been left hopeless following a call with a therapist from the center. Seeking help proved to be more of a pain than a relief for her, as high wait times and inconclusive sessions plagued her experiences with it.
The average wait time to seek an initial appointment with a counselor can range from a few days to two weeks, according to Director of the Counseling Center Scott Strader. Following that, it is up to the student and therapist, who typically takes on 15-25 students per week, to coordinate further meeting times. Fischer said scheduling future appointments created difficulties in ensuring she received the help she needed.
Strader also said the Counseling Center has 30 therapists ranging from psychologists to in-training counselors when fully staffed. Currently, there are 24 available therapists to assist students.
When Fischer began sessions with her therapist from the Counseling Center, there was a two to three week gap between each appointment. At the time, Fischer said she needed more frequent help, but that was not something the center was able to provide.
“I had mentioned to her that I was really, really suffering and that it would be really good for me if I could see somebody every week,” she said. “And she just told me that that wasn’t really possible. And that was really hard to hear.”
To help combat high wait times at the center on the Tampa campus, Strader said on the 10th week of the fall and spring semesters, most sessions are shortened to last 30 minutes. This is so therapists have the ability to see more students and avoid raising wait times even higher.
“Many university counseling centers will limit access at some point near the end of the semester, because their wait time for services exceeds the number of weeks remaining in the semester,” he said. “Our model allows for consistent and ongoing access to services throughout the semester, so that we never turn students away.”
Strader said the Counseling Center also takes walk-in appointments, where students will be able to see an available therapist that same day. However, if a student wants to meet with the same therapist for every appointment, they must schedule and coordinate with them in advance.
Though fitting more students ensures the university can attend to most students who request help, senior psychology major Riley Melucci said the quality of these sessions were questionable.
Melucci said her first session with the Counseling Center, which she had to wait five weeks for, only worsened her conditions.
“[It] wasn’t great because the counselor I met with made me feel embarrassed about what I was talking about, and then recommended me to this group therapy [program] and I just didn’t feel like that was what I needed.”
Sitting with a therapist for 30 minutes every few weeks was not enough time to truly discuss the root of her issues, Fischer said. Even though her therapist had good intentions and specialized in LGBTQ issues, the topics Fischer would speak about would never get fully fleshed out.
“A lot of my issues kind of revolved around [LGBTQ] topics, and I felt like I wasn’t supported,” she said. “But I think that LGBTQ people just have different issues that require special attention, that I definitely feel like were not given to me.
“I remember her being supportive, I just don’t remember it helping all that much.”
Finding specialized help from a department as large as the Counseling Center can be difficult, according to Lotus Flower Project (LFP) support group co-coordinator Iana Martin, as many students have needs or issues that require more specific attention.
Though Martin said LFP shouldn’t be utilized instead of professional help, the organization helps students who may need a more personalized approach to speaking about their issues.
“I think there’s something to be said about a peer-led group that’s a lot less intimidating than trying to schedule with the Counseling Center or finding another group elsewhere,” she said. “Not that those aren’t great things, but I think it’s really easy to … just show up and talk to people who have experienced what you’re experiencing and who are around the same age as you.
“[Having] a one-on-one with a therapist … can be a little bit more awkward at first until you’re comfortable. So I like to think that we cultivate a very comfortable environment for people to just come in and feel very at ease.”
Behavioral health care major and LFP support group coordinator Zena Rodill said even though most of the eight to 10 students that attend the support group sessions for LFP seek independent help, some come to the organization after failing to find the support they needed from the Counseling Center.
Due to the lack of therapists, Rodill said about six students she knows of have sought additional support from LFP and other student organizations that specialize in discussing eating disorders.
Despite the efforts of the Counseling Center to help as many students as possible, Fischer said her experiences caused her to look for external help instead.
“I felt like [the sessions] were pretty stagnant. Like she would listen, but not listen fully and ask directed questions,” she said. “I feel like it was more just her trying to guide me to help rather than really addressing the issues and how to fix them.
“I felt that I could find somebody who would understand me better, who could put more time into us. I really wanted a stronger bond with my therapist.”