Students report shortage of adequate mental health care

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Pictured is a woman holding a laptop with the words “Mental Health” displayed on it in big, black letters. Students of UConn have been complaining recently about not receiving adequate mental health care from school psychiatrists. Photo courtesy of Polina

University of Connecticut and Central Connecticut State University students have reported being unable to book appointments with mental health professionals amidst a growing mental health crisis. 

Brianna Decapua, a seventh-semester marketing major at CCSU, noted being unable to book an appointment with a single psychiatrist despite calling every psychiatrist listed under her insurance for the past month.  

“All except one of them said that they are not accepting new patients and the one that is only had the earliest appointment in February. They are nice and try to redirect me to a different office who might be, but it’s always the same thing,” she said.  

Decapua has been experiencing anxiety and trouble focusing. She said that this semester it got to the point where she needed to see a psychiatrist.  

Decapua said she is open to driving far to find a good psychiatrist that is covered by insurance. For this reason, the list of Connecticut and Massachusetts offices her insurance gave her was lengthy.   

According to Decapua, there were at least 50 offices and she called all of them. All gave the same response: they are fully booked.  

“I would sometimes sit in my car at random times during the day, like, in between classes and just call people to check,” she said.  

Decapua said she had never sought help or been seen by a behavioral specialist before. However, this is not just an issue for Decapua and other mental health care newcomers. According to students who are seasoned patients, they still get turned away for weeks to months.  

“This wasn’t my first time seeking therapy, but definitely the hardest time trying to set an appointment since COVID-19,” Jaida Williams, a fifth-semester political science major at UConn, said.  

Williams said she had to wait 10 weeks to see her therapist after initially calling for an appointment. Williams said she emailed her availability back in September, but has not yet heard back from the therapist.  

Unable to put her mental health on hold, Williams called another psychiatrist. According to her, the clinician was unable to see her due to personal leave, but once back, the wait would be a month. 

“I honestly gave up at two tries and just decided to try and work through things myself,” Williams said over the phone.  

Psychiatrists who clinically diagnose and medicate patients are different from therapists who specialize in talk therapy. According to Williams, the first doctor she saw was a trauma therapist and the second was a psychiatrist.  

Williams was not sure about resorting to medications just yet, she said. She was not reaching out to the psychiatrist purely for a prescription, but with the hope she would find some form of adequate mental health therapy, covered partially by her insurance.  

Though she might have contemplated the more-than-a-month wait for help, Williams said she was wary of seeing a psychiatrist because of a past experience.  

“The last time I went to a different psychiatrist, she was very weird and wasn’t interested in listening to me, which makes no sense since that’s what they are supposed to do to plan a course of treatment,” she said.  

Because of that experience, Williams said it was harder for her to gain the emotional energy to reach out again only to be left more distressed by her experience.  

“I don’t trust people often because of that experience, and have been uncomfortable calling other places,” Williams said. “I didn’t want the [psychiatrist with over a month’s wait] to try and put me on some random medication because she assumed she knew what I was going through based on just looking at me and not listening.”  

Williams and Decapua are not the only ones who are exhausted by their experiences. For many students, finding the time and courage to seek professional help for their mental health is a struggle in itself, exacerbated by what they are seeking the help for.  

Luke Phillips, a fifth-semester political science major at UConn, has felt the same thing as he attempted to find a therapist.  

“Trying to get therapists right now is a task and a half… very little openings for new patients anywhere,” Phillips said in a phone message.  

The dilemma, faced by Phillips, Williams and Decapua, is not news to medical professionals in New England like Chiara Santavenere, a UConn Health alumna. Since graduating in 2019, Sanavenere has worked as a nurse at North Shore Community Health in Peabody, Mass. 

“The wait time is very long. Like weeks to months for social workers, therapists and psychiatrists. So we usually have the client speak with a provider first (doctor, NP) before, to evaluate and prescribe them meds if needed before they can get to see a behavioral health specialist,” Sanavenere said in a Facebook message.  

“I DON’T TRUST PEOPLE OFTEN BECAUSE OF THAT EXPERIENCE, AND HAVE BEEN UNCOMFORTABLE CALLING OTHER PLACES. I DIDN’T WANT THE [PSYCHIATRIST WITH OVER A MONTH’S WAIT] TO TRY AND PUT ME ON SOME RANDOM MEDICATION BECAUSE SHE ASSUMED SHE KNEW WHAT I WAS GOING THROUGH BASED ON JUST LOOKING AT ME AND NOT LISTENING.”

Jaida Williams

Over the past year, Sanavenere has witnessed more and more patients come in for behavioral health-related issues. 

“There just has been such an uptick in the need for behavioral health after the pandemic,” she said. 

The rapid upsurge of patients seeking help for feelings of depression, anxiety, mood disorders, eating disorders and attention deficit disorders among other mental health issues has not been balanced by an increase in help available, according to Sanavenere.  

“So the demand is high, but there’s a limited number of behavioral health providers,” she said.  

What Sanavenere described is happening throughout the nation. A New York Times article written in September states: “Many say that they are languishing on waiting lists, making call after call only to be turned away, with affordable options tough to find. Providers, who have long been in short supply, are stretched thin.” 

The Times and many professionals like Sanavenere point to the pandemic as the source of high unmet demand. However, for Connecticut college students, the issue began before the pandemic.  

In 2019, the CT Mirror and the CT Post reported on UConn and other Connecticut colleges’  struggle to provide adequate mental health care to the rapid rise in students seeking help who could not get it elsewhere.   

During the pandemic, UConn and other universities grew their mental health centers. As of this week, students can make an appointment just a few days in advance.  

“trying to get therapists right now is a task and a half…very little openings for new patients anywhere.”

Luke Phillips

However, in these appointments, patients may only be seen by the available licensed marriage and family therapist and/or a licensed clinical social worker. Neither of which can take on the role of a psychiatrist who can prescribe medication.  

Aside from this, UConn offers 24/7 hour services including the Mental Health Hotline and UConn Advice Nurse.  

However, for students like Philips and Williams, looking to the school for help is a last resort. Decapua, who is looking for a psychiatrist, cannot practically receive this from her school, CCSU. All students interviewed reported they had not reached out to their university resources.  

According to Williams, she thought about making an appointment with the Health Center, but is hesitant because of how hard it is to find an effective and trustworthy therapist. Though UConn therapists have the same policy of client confidentiality as any others, Williams feels it is more of a risk to open up to a therapist associated with her university.  

“I’m more hesitant on getting help from UConn, because if I say anything potentially alarming, [it] could mess up my academic world… So I’m not sure if I am comfortable to receive help from a therapist at UConn because of that fear,” she said.  

Williams and Decapua both reported that they put their search for a psychiatrist and therapist on hold because it became too stressful.  Phillips is still looking.

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