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Stanford announces new approach to counseling services to better serve students

'Increased demand had put an unsustainable strain on the system,' university says in statement

As the start of the new academic year approaches, Stanford University is changing how students receive counseling services to cut down on long wait times and to meet a growing demand for mental health support on campus.

The university has been criticized in recent years for failing to properly support students' mental health and well-being, including with extended wait times for therapy appointments. A class-action lawsuit filed last year alleges Stanford violated state and federal anti-discrimination laws in its response to students with mental health disabilities who were negatively impacted by "discriminatory" leave of absence policies and practices.

In an announcement last week detailing a new intake process for therapy, Stanford acknowledged the counseling system's shortcomings. Students couldn't access services — sometimes waiting as long as a month — while staff felt overwhelmed, said Oliver Lin, operations director at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

"Increased demand had put an unsustainable strain on the system," the university said.

Under the previous intake model, students would request a phone assessment appointment, complete an intake and then begin therapy. But "bottle-necking" meant some students would wait weeks just to start the intake process, Lin said.

Under a new model, the phone assessments have been eliminated. Students will now be able to call or go into Counseling and Psychological Services on any weekday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. to be connected with a clinician to determine what resources and services they might need. This "brief discussion" could then be followed by a more specific conversation with a clinician about what the student is experiencing, according to the announcement.

The clinician will then suggest next steps, which could include creating a support plan, scheduling follow-up sessions, participating in a campus group or workshop "relevant to the student's life," referring the student to a therapist for specialized or longer-term care or to a psychiatry consult for medication, for which fees would apply.

Stanford students can also access mental health assistance 24/7, including evenings and weekends, by calling 650-723-3785.

"We have been focusing on how we can get students in the door earlier, how can we connect students to services across campus and how can we expand our range of services," said CAPS Director Bina Patel. "We've also recognized the need for more flexibility in how counseling sessions are provided."

Stanford announced in April that it planned to hire four additional CAPS clinicians and offer new services this fall, including a group and workshop series and a program that would make therapists available in community centers and other locations throughout campus. The university was also planning for increased training for faculty and staff on student well-being.

Stanford has also renamed and relocated Wellness and Health Promotion Services, now Well-Being at Stanford, which is taking a more holistic, public health approach. The office will collaborate with departments across campus from CAPS, the Office of Alcohol Policy and Education and the Confidential Support Team (which provides services to victims of sexual violence) to Residential Education.

The office is also launching a pilot coaching program for students who might not need therapy but want support with issues such as adjusting to Stanford, mild depression or anxiety, healthy eating or balancing academics with life, the university said. Also under consideration is an "adulting" class that would teach students about effective communication and healthy eating and sleeping habits.

Colleges and universities across the country are working to meet a rising tide of demand for mental health support. Stanford pointed to a national survey in which 87% of college students reported feeling overwhelmed by their responsibilities in the past year and 85% said they felt exhausted. Seventy-one percent of students nationwide reported feeling very sad, and 66% reported overwhelming anxiety. Twenty-four percent of students surveyed were diagnosed with or treated for anxiety, and 20% for depression.

"Stanford recognizes the urgent need to respond to these trends, and I have appreciated the campus-wide support and interest in addressing these concerns," Patel said in the announcement. "But we also want to be proactive in promoting positive mental health and well-being. The changes and collaborations we've discussed are initial steps toward these goals. We know these efforts are works-in-progress, and that we will have to continuously evolve in order to meet the needs of our students."

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