When Kenyon students return from spring break, they will find two fewer faces in the Cox Health and Counseling Center, as the counseling team shrinks to four. After this loss, one third of available counselors on campus are gone, leaving students unsure of where they should turn.
Chris Smith, director of health and counseling services, said that, for privacy reasons, he could not give specifics for the two counselors’ departures, but said that staff transitions are a staple of any organization.
Given that students can only schedule appointments weeks in advance, those who had planned meetings with the exiting staff members have had to adjust. As of Feb. 26, approximately 15 of the 20 who had scheduled appointments with one of the now-former counselors have rescheduled appointments with other counselors, according to Smith.
“For the students who were connected to their current counselors that are leaving or have left, we reached out to offer them the first available appointment,” Smith said. “Some just took the first available with anybody, some had a preference of who they wanted to go to, and we try and accommodate that as best we can.”
As a student organization advised by the Counseling Center, the Peer Counselors (PCs) offer an additional resource available to students, but their numbers have also dropped over this year. Of the 32 people who signed up to be PCs, and the 20 of those who underwent training in the fall, only five remain as active members.
According to the Mar. 29, 2018 Collegian article “Future of Peer Counselors Uncertain,” changes enacted last year have altered PCs’ role and presence on campus by revoking their hotline and limiting the types of situations they are authorized to handle. Yanno Fernandez ’21, who began as a new PC this fall, feels that his ability to help students is limited.
“No one has contacted me directly, and [it’s the same situation] for a lot of the other Peer Counselors — the numbers are very low,” Fernandez said. “Many of them have dropped — and that’s not to say that they didn’t want to be a Peer Counselor anymore. I think everyone who started off as a PC wants to help people, but there’s so many restrictions that are put on us now.”
Last spring, the College decided to shut down the 24/7 PC hotline, citing the PCs’ lack of professional clinical training. The change sparked an uproar among PCs past and present, who saw the hotline as an essential tool for helping students in crisis. “The PC hotline was such a good thing,” Fernandez said. “Because I think it’s incredibly stupid to just say, ‘if someone is in crisis, they’re just going to look at the poster and email someone.’”
The changes to the PCs moved them away from this role as crisis responders. When Smith was appointed as director of health and counseling services, he focused his attention on compartmentalizing the roles of both professional and peer counselors, making sure that the care they offered would be safe, certified and beneficial to those seeking help.
“When I first got here at Kenyon, the philosophy of Health and Counseling was ‘be all things to all students at all times.’ That’s not realistic. It’s not sustainable and honestly can be kind of unhealthy and dangerous for students,” Smith said. He stressed that the purpose of the Counseling Center is to provide students with the resources and care they need while also setting them up to lead healthy, independent lives after Kenyon.
Ari Tooch ’19 had been a counselor in the PC program since her sophomore year, until she opted to leave earlier this semester. Tooch agreed with the Counseling Center that the training afforded to PCs did not qualify them to act as crisis responders. Tooch explained that, over the hotline phone and in one-on-one sessions, PCs would offer students advice on what to do in certain situations and tell other students they might have depression or anxiety.
Smith maintains that the role of Peer Counselors is to destigmatize topics around mental health, to help educate the campus on mental health and to let other students know of the certified resources available on and off-campus. The PCs had never been officially assigned to crisis response, and the ambiguity of their founding meant their positions had never been cemented by the Counseling Center.
“I think Kenyon kind of realized we were operating very freely — there was no kind of connection between us and the Counseling Center, us and the administration,” Tooch said. “I don’t think they really knew what we were doing. I don’t really think we knew what we were doing, if I’m being honest.”
While the PC job description has altered in response to instances of miscounseling, Fernandez believes that communication problems prevail and the PCs are underutilized in transferring students to professional resources. “There’s such a disconnect between the administration and what their clear wants are, and between like the student body or student groups such as Peer Counselors,” he said.
With increasing restrictions on peer counseling and less resources for professional counseling, students’ immediate access to on-campus aid has been directly impacted by changes within the Counseling Center.
“I think the Peer Counselors could work to see … what services the Counseling Center can’t give to students and fill in those gaps rather than just trying to be an extension because I don’t think that’ll ever happen,” Tooch said.