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Mailman: consultation and collaboration

Mailman offers students counseling

Published: February 29, 2008
Section: Front Page


Bolstered by the university’s notification systems as well as student-oriented services such as Residence Life and the Brandeis Emergency Medical Corps, the Mailman Counseling Center is one of several mental health options for community members.

Over 550 students visit the center per year, and approximately half of every graduating class has visited Mailman before leaving Brandeis.

Dean of Student Life Rick Sawyer said, “our counseling center is extraordinarily busy…does that mean we have a heightened security issue on campus? No—it means we have a very robust service for our community.”

“We’re way ahead of the curve in terms of community approaches for community health,” said Mailman Senior Director Dr. Robert Berlin. “Our major concern is adaptation and completing your education and providing as much assistance as we can…a place where people work through their difficulties.”

Berlin added that Mailman also offers long-term psychotherapy for students, which, he said, is a rare service on college campuses. “Kids can continue past what brought them here and continue their entire undergraduate career,” he said. “That’s the kind of approach that diminishes certain risks.”

Based on a collaborative model, Berlin stated, “we work with students around their difficulties understanding what’s normal, and not emphasizing what’s abnormal.”

Since Berlin’s arrival at the university over 20 years ago, Mailman began instituting a community-based model, interacting with every office in the university.

Furthermore, when Senior Vice President for Students and Enrollment Jean Eddy came to Brandeis, the Counseling Center expanded its services, including extensive programs for eating disorders and triaging patients to specific staffers.

According to Sawyer, the Office of Student Life and the Mailman Center generally collaborate if someone notices that a community member displays depressive or suicidal behavior. “It’s not uncommon for someone in this office [and others to] get a phone call or an e-mail from somebody who says ‘I’m concerned about Student X.’” he said.

“If a student hasn’t come out of their room in 24 hours, or it may be a friend who didn’t like what they saw in an away message or e-mail…that kind of phone call to any office, in my mind, is a priority. The timeline for those sorts of calls is immediate—we will devote all of our resources to finding that student,” he added.

Sawyer said that possible high-risk calls are immediately referred to the Mailman Center, and lower-risk calls are generally scheduled within a few days.

“It’s a small campus—we may learn of a mental issue through a judicial process…very often, we get calls from parents who’ve gotten off the phone with their kid and they’re very concerned,” he said.

“It’s hard to be anonymous on this campus, period,” he added,
“if someone’s under stress, it’s going to be noticed.”

While Sawyer said that he receives one to two calls from concerned community members a week, Berlin stated that approximately 90 percent of all appointments at Minuteman are self-referred.

A community member, student Sarah Bernes ’10, expressed one concern with the existing system. Bernes, who has volunteered at Teen Life Line, a Phoenix-based suicide prevention hotline, feels the university needs a suicide prevention specialist. “We obviously do have the Mailman Psychological Counseling Center…in terms of general mental health resources, we do have that,” she said.

“Still, there are people waiting a while for an appointment—sometimes even a month—and sometimes they don’t connect. In terms of suicide prevention and depression on campus, we have nothing,” she remarked.

Bernes said the suicide prevention specialist’s responsibilities would involve the implementation of the “gatekeeper” suicide prevention policy approved by the Surgeon General in 2001.

According to Bernes, these protocols have 68 objectives, including general education on suicide for students on campus, and training key individuals to “recognize a suicidal crisis, respond to the person, and refer them for future counseling.”

“What I touched upon in the report is why there needs to be a suicide prevention specialist… because suicide is contagious,” she said.

“We [at Brandeis currently] deal with high-risk cases, not the general campus… there’s no posters around, no dorm raps like there are for drug abuse,” Bernes commented

Using the recent bird flu epidemics as a metaphor for suicide treatment, Bernes said, “you don’t just treat high-risk individuals. You treat everyone, you give them a number to call if they have the virus…you bring in experts. That’s the public health aspect—they treat everyone.”

When asked about alternate methods of psychological counseling, such as the Student Sexuality Information Service, Students Talking About Relationships, and the Brandeis Rape Crisis and Counseling Hotline, Bernes stated, “they’re not specifically suicide prevention…if a student turned to one of these places instead of Mailman, I don’t know how it would turn out.”

Discussing offices in residence halls, Bernes added, “we have CAs and ResLife—do they get suicide prevention techniques? Yes. Is it as extensive as it should be? No.”

In response, Sawyer stated that various offices on campus have plans to deal with suicide and other violence on campus: “To say we need a suicide prevention specialist might be misinterpreted as we’re weak in that area.” Still, he added, “I have met with the student—it’s like having any sort of specialist on campus: if we can afford it, why not?”

Sawyer said that every year, to educate administrators and faculty, he disseminates a memo explaining signs for depression, along with emergency contact information. “I update it every year…I have so many numbers, it takes a whole page on the back of the memo,” Sawyer stated.

While Berlin said that he respected Bernes’ passion for suicide prevention, he felt that Mailman did not need to hire a suicide prevention specialist. “This place deals with that issue 24-7. There are innumerable specialists who deal with suicide prevention and there always have been.”

When asked about the Surgeon General’s gatekeeper training, Berlin replied, “we’re not indifferent of the Surgeon General, but we do this as a living.”

Responding to the suggestion that the specialist could act as another set of hands, Berlin said, “we have all the hands we need about this—there isn’t one suicide prevention specialist. There’s a whole team—3 psychiatrists, 16 psychologists, and 2 social workers.”

He stressed that the Mailman facility are “not causists, we’re clinicians…we dedicate our lives to suicide prevention and we try to accept the limitations of what we can do.”

Bernes, however, feels suicide education is sorely lacking on campus. “At Brandeis, the most dangerous thing is the students don’t feel cared about and that’s what we have right now,” she said.

“If we had more resources for suicide and depression,” she said, “I think the general atmosphere of the campus would be improved.”

Sawyer, meanwhile, felt the general psychological options were bolstered by the character of the university. “This campus is a very caring campus for each other. It’s a product of the kind of student that is attracted to Brandeis and the intentional work amongst administrators to set an example,” he said.

The general increase of counseling patients is not a worrying concern, he added, but a sign of progress nationwide.

“It’s kind of well-known that over the last 10 years, the presence of students with varying mental concerns has increased, due to more medications and prescribing them for children,” Sawyer said.

“It’s allowed students who wouldn’t have been able to deal with high-stress environments go up, graduate high school, and get to go to college,” Sawyer added.

He continued, “that doesn’t mean we have a horde of problems on campus, just a busier counseling center. It hasn’t challenged the security on campus.”