Understanding USM’s university counseling services

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Dionne Smith / Director of Photography

By Cooper-John Trapp, Staff Writer

What is counseling? Anna Gardner, a clinical counselor with University Health and Counseling Services (UHCS), outlined the counseling service provided to USM students in a recent interview.

The process of therapy begins when a student recognizes an issue and decides to seek professional help. Counseling can help with issues of “anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, relationship issues, motivation, substance use, academic concerns, [and] trauma,” says Sarah Kelly, LCPC and clinical counselor with UHCS.

Students are asked to arrive early to the initial visit, called a consult visit, to complete paperwork on a tablet. One form is a screening called the Counseling Center Assessment of Psychological Symptoms (CCAPS). The CCAPS identifies areas of possible concern that the counselor will discuss with the students, such as substance use, sleeping difficulties, self-harm, social functioning and motivation. Students share their concerns and what brings them to therapy and counselors share resources and possible treatment options. While listening and getting to know the student, counselors make note of potential safety concerns the student poses to themselves or others and form an initial mental health assessment.

Counselors meet with students for 45 minutes. The remaining 15 minutes are used by counselors to conclude their notes of the completed session and to prepare for their next scheduled appointment.

While counseling practices patient confidentiality, there are exceptions. Action will be taken if there is an “imminent level of risk,” says Gardner. Counselors will not breach confidentiality without overwhelming reason.

The first reason for intervention is if there is harm to oneself or others. This includes serious talk of suicide or violence toward another person. The second, as stated on the UCHS website, is if there is any, “indication of abuse to a child or an incapacitated elder.” The last reason is a court-ordered subpoena.

The visit after the consult is typically where students have the opportunity to share their story. This second visit can be characterized as “intake assessment and treatment planning,” says Gardner. Ideally, this session is for the student to both express the scope of their history and current distress and identify their goals in therapy. The counselor will then go over possible treatment plans and how different methods of therapy could tie into the student’s goals.

Different therapists have different modalities or methods they are skilled in. A therapist with a trauma-informed modality would benefit students who experienced recent or past trauma. Other common approaches include cognitive-behavioral therapy, which identifies and challenges negative thoughts in order to change negative patterns of behavior, and psychodynamic therapy, which resembles ‘talk therapy,’ where therapist and client explore the dynamics of early relationships and their connection to current stressors.

Counseling addresses situational distress, such as harassment or assault. If a student requires ongoing therapy beyond the 12 sessions per academic year UHCS provides, the university counseling service will offer help to connect students with other providers.

The fit between the student and counselor is a crucial component of effective therapy. Often, students will attend the consult visit but not return because something felt off. This, Gardner says, is why counselors tell their patients to “shop around” for a therapist until they feel comfortable.

“Fit is one of the biggest factors of successful therapy,” Gardner said. “We won’t be offended, we understand this is how the process works.”

Students can choose the gender and race of their counselor if desired, as well as whether the counselor is a staff member or intern working on their masters or doctoral degree.

Gardner emphasizes that students choose the therapeutic process. “Ideally, they are ultimately in control,” she says.

Last year, 551 students at USM received some sort of counseling support from a nine-person staff and four to five supervised interns.

Counseling services are available on both the Portland and Gorham campuses and in Lewiston/Auburn by appointment. Twelve counseling sessions are available at no charge to all students who paid their health fee and are taking at least six credits per semester.

Students can make an appointment in person at 110 Upton-Hastings Hall on the Gorham campus or 105 Payson Smith on the Portland campus. Appointments can be made by phone: 780-5411 for the Gorham campus and 780-4050 for the Portland campus.

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