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September 3, 2015

New director heads counseling center

Ed Michaels

Ed Michaels

The University Counseling Center’s new leader, Ed Michaels, sees “opportunities to make a big difference” by instituting new practices to promote student health, well-being and success at Pitt.

Says Michaels: “We’re very interested in promoting an awareness in the University community at all levels … of what students may be going through that may be challenges, what are supports for students that may be stressed or struggling, and that you can connect students to the help they may need.”

He started at Pitt June 15 in the counseling center’s office on the second floor of Nordenberg Hall, following 20 years of administering similar departments at Northwestern University, DePaul University, the University of Toledo and Northern Michigan University. He earned a BS in psychology from Loyola University of Chicago and his MA and PhD in psychology from Northwestern. He has been a licensed clinical psychologist for 37 years.

“I’ve been at a lot of different universities,” Michaels says. “Long before I came here I was familiar with the operation. Pitt has a wonderful reputation for having a lot of dedication to student welfare.

“I was very impressed when I came here for an interview,” he adds. “This is an organization that’s values-driven and that … requires people to behave to a standard. You don’t always find that. A lot of universities, they steer a wide berth from that.”

One of his top priorities for students will be reducing the stigma too often associated with seeking help: “Just the way you may call a plumber when your sink is backed up, you seek out experts when you have a [psychological] challenge.”

While college adds stressors to students’ lives, some arrive already requiring help.

“They didn’t start living at the age of 18,” Michaels allows. “Some of them have had bigger challenges than others. We do know that once they get here there are inherent stresses of being a college student.”

At other institutions he has witnessed the recent national trends that show more students are accessing more counseling services more often, and for more severe difficulties. Students’ top problems are the anxiety and stress often caused by juggling academics, peer and family relations and perhaps a job on the side. Their No. 2 concern is depression, followed by relationship difficulties, such as having trouble connecting to people in college and feeling isolated.

The most recent Pitt counseling center statistics show that, during the last two completed academic years, 2,500-3,000 students were seen each year for 14,000-15,000 visits, including 500-750 group appointments.

U.S. trends are reported in the National Survey of College Counseling Centers, which was released last in 2014 and was overseen by Robert P. Gallagher, a former Pitt counseling center director. The survey is sponsored by the American College Counseling Association.

Of the 3.3 million students in 275 centers surveyed, 11 percent sought counseling and 30 percent attended workshops and presentations on counseling center topics. Of those seen by center staff, 14 percent were referred for psychiatric evaluation and 26 percent were already on psychiatric medication. Certain specific problems are on the increase, according to the survey: anxiety disorders in 89 percent of centers; crises requiring immediate response in 69 percent of centers; psychiatric medication issues in 60 percent of centers; clinical depression in 58 percent of centers; learning disabilities in 47 percent of centers; and sexual assault on campus in 43 percent of centers.

Those surveyed also reported that 52 percent of their clients have severe psychological problems (increased from 44 percent in 2013), while 8 percent “have impairment so serious they cannot remain in school, or can only do so with extensive psychological/psychiatric help.” Forty-four percent of center clients nationally have experienced severe distress (such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks or suicidal thoughts) but can be treated on campus, according to the survey.

Students who visit the centers at larger schools tend to have more issues: 59 percent have severe problems, with half successfully treated on campus and 9 percent at the other extreme — needing to leave school for treatment.

There were 125 student suicides on surveyed campuses in 2013. Among those for whom a cause was known, 61 percent had been depressed, 21 percent were experiencing relationship issues, 11 percent had academic issues, 5 percent had legal concerns and 2 percent had financial concerns.

School counseling centers at larger institutions around the country have sought a variety of solutions to the increase in student need:

• 73 percent increased their training of faculty and others on campus to deal with student issues.

• 65 percent expanded their external referral networks.

• 62 percent started or served on committees trying for early identification of troubled students.

• 49 percent increased staff training for difficult cases.

• 50 percent created psychological and educational advice websites.

• 52 percent increased the number of part-time counselors.

• 45 percent increased overall counseling staff.

• 35 percent increased consulting hours.


Managing the counseling center’s increased demand could involve hiring more staffers, Michaels says, but he’d just as soon “be smarter about what services you offer,” he says. The counseling center already is offering educational workshops on stress management and other topics. He is aiming to implement quicker appointments and same-day connections to workshops, “right when they walk in,” he adds. “Everybody should know that we’re here and it is very easy to get an appointment.”

He also wants to emphasize group counseling for six-eight students at a time, instead of individual counseling. Groups can be focused on common areas of concern, such as a dissertation support group. “We find the groups can be very powerfully helpful,” he says. “That other students are in the same boat that they are is often a revelation. Students tend to love the groups once they get into them.”

Group counseling takes place once per week, while individual counseling, which still has a high demand, is limited to every other week.

Michaels proposed and was made chair of the University’s new mental health task force, which will begin meeting to identify key initiatives: for instance, looking at new methods of suicide prevention and violence prevention while promoting student resilience and life skills such as stress management.

“I really believe that it is important to harvest the wisdom of our own internal experts,” he concludes. However, “as I often say, I reserve the right to be smarter today than I was yesterday. If we figure out that something isn’t working … or something that will allow us to meet our needs better, we will not stand on ceremony or stick to tradition.”

—Marty Levine

Filed under: Feature,Volume 48 Issue 1

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