The chair of Ohio State’s Department of Psychology called Ohio State’s policy for dealing with urgent mental health care needs “shocking” and “embarrassing” in a recent letter to members of the university’s Suicide and Mental Health Task Force.
Charles Emery wrote to the task force, including University President Michael V. Drake, in October after he said a first-year student expressed suicidal thoughts to a doctoral trainee in the psychology department. After referring the student to Counseling and Consultation Services, the doctoral trainee was told CCS “will not see students who need urgent care,” the letter reads.
“OSU can — and should — do a better job of serving the mental health care needs of our students. I am writing to urge you to do everything possible to make this a reality,” Emery wrote.
CCS is a free psychological service available to Ohio State students. The Suicide and Mental Health Task Force was formed in April 2018, following incidents of two students falling from parking garages within days of each other. It is aimed at developing suggestions and implementing improvements for improving mental health resources on campus.
But Emery said there’s still work to be done.
“I was really shocked when I was told that the counseling center on campus would not see any walk-in students,” he said in an interview. “It hadn’t even occurred to me for a moment that that would not be a possibility.”
Instead, students who may be in danger of harming themselves or others should be referred to an emergency department, Katie Hall, chief of staff in the Office of the President, said in an email response to Emery.
“Your letter highlights the need for us to better communicate this to the broader campus community, and we appreciate your willingness to offer this feedback,” she said.
Micky Sharma, director of CCS, said it is set up to prioritize the most distressed students. Sharma said students who need urgent attention can call CCS and will be deemed high priority. If there is not a clinician available at that time, a clinician will call the student back within 24 hours.
Then, they will conduct a screening and connect the student to the appropriate mental health resources. However, he said if the student cannot wait 24 hours to speak to a clinician, they should go to the emergency department.
If the student is calling after-hours, they will be connected to a live third-party counselor who will send CCS a report of the call at 8 a.m. the next business day.
“We are very fortunate on our campus that there is a walk-in service available 24 hours a day on our campus for all students through the emergency department. Not every campus has that,” he said.
Emery said he remains concerned, and it’s a disservice to students to routinely send them to the emergency department.
“I’ve actually supervised cases where a student was sent to the emergency room and that then became an additional trauma for the student to deal with,” he said. “You know you’re put in a room somewhere and you’re isolated, and it can be intimidating and stigmatizing and traumatizing.”
Staff at the Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State have a “trauma-informed mindset,” and they often encounter people who have survived suicide attempts, Dr. David Kasick, a psychiatrist at the medical center who supports the emergency department, said.
“I think it’s a common fear that people have, and sometimes a fear that may keep them from seeking treatment,” he said. “But we want to make sure we’re doing everything we can do to engage with them and to help them feel safe and cared for so that the crisis can resolve.”
Emery said the cost of trips to emergency departments can also be a concern for some students.
In this particular case, the student was seen urgently by CCS, and CCS does have protocols to respond to urgent situations, Hall’s email said.
However, Emery said part of the problem is how CCS services are advertised.
“It’s ironic, right, because we’ve got all over campus now and on all the parking decks, the signs that say, ‘You matter.’ And then, ‘If you’re in distress, call this number.’ And yet we don’t say, ‘You matter. If you’re in distress, come and see us,’” he said.
The letter cites UCLA and Michigan as comparable schools that offer walk-in services. Emery said it is embarrassing to see Ohio State “lagging behind.”
Both UCLA and Michigan advertise walk-in hours during the week for students who are in crisis, according to each school’s website.
Kasick and Cassie Griffiths, a University Police detective, said students should also feel comfortable calling 911 if they are in crisis.
“We stress that people give the police department a call because we talk to people in crisis all the time, and we’re a good resource to point them in the direction of where they need to go,” Griffiths said.
All members of University Police go through a 40-hour crisis intervention training, and although police can be an added stressor at times, they do their best to de-escalate the situation while maintaining the student’s privacy, she said.
Emery said he thinks CCS does important work and works hard to manage a large volume of students, but there are problems with the current system and messaging.
“Obviously I’m really concerned,” Emery said. “It’s surprising, embarrassing, to me that this is the way things are set up, but I also would want to give the administration and the counseling center every opportunity to address the problem.”
Emery said he is set to meet with Sharma and others later this week.
A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Katie Hall is Katie Hull. It has been corrected.