Sam Cochran is director of University Counseling Service, the primary mental health service for University of Iowa students. Established in 1946, the office falls under the Division of Student Services and is funded by the Iowa legislature through the General Education Fund.
The office employs 12 licensed psychologists and 3 predoctoral interns, and trains 6 to 10 counseling graduate students each semester. In addition to providing individual and group sessions, the staff works with departments across campus and in the community to offer educational programming. Cochran recently spoke with Parent Times about mental health issues on campus and how his office addresses them.
What specific services does University Counseling Service provide?
Mainly one-on-one counseling sessions with students and group counseling for certain issues or special interests. We also offer educational programming in the residence halls and present to classes on topics like stress management, depression, or how to deal with homesickness. And we serve as a training facility for graduate students in UI counseling programs.
We also provide consultation to anyone in the University community who has concerns or wants to know something about mental health issues related to the student population. For example, we might hear from parents wanting to get feedback on student adjustment to college; from faculty members concerned about a student who hasn’t been coming to class for several weeks; from deans referring a student who has gotten into some kind of difficulty academically and isn’t succeeding.
What kinds of problems does your office handle?
We cover it all, from the minor to the serious: difficulty adjusting as a new student, homesickness, relationship problems, growing pains, confusion about identity or selection of a career or major, clinical depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorders, and some of the more serious mental illnesses.
Who makes the appointments?
All students—including correspondence students, Saturday and Evening students, part-time, professional, undergrad, graduate—are eligible for our services, which are free of charge. We prefer that students make the appointments, but sometimes a person related to and/or authorized by the student will make an appointment. If parents have a concern, they should call the front desk and ask to speak to one of the counselors, and then we’ll develop a game plan. Due to privacy laws, however, we can’t discuss the specifics of a case without the student’s consent.
In that first appointment, we talk to the student about what their concerns are and then figure out a treatment plan. About half the time that might involve continuing sessions with a counselor here, and usually the counseling is short-term—from two to ten sessions. Sometimes we refer them to a provider on campus or in the community for longer-term counseling—for either multiple or longstanding types of psychological problems or if there is a need for psychiatric backup that we don’t have. Our priority is to see people who are coming in the door and keep the door revolving.
When should parents think about calling you for help?
Anytime there is concern about their student’s emotional health—from “My son has been calling me every night, and I’m worried because that’s really unusual for him” to “My daughter sounds like she’s depressed, and there’s a history of depression in our family. What should I do?” to “My son said he’s flunked all his midterms and needs some help getting his grades up.” Anything. We’d like to reach new students before they get in too deep of a hole, and parents are certainly our best resource for doing that.
You started in your office 27 years ago as an intern and have been the director for nine years. What kinds of trends have you seen over the years regarding mental health on college campuses?
There is less stigma about seeking services. A lot of students are coming to campus who have already had psychological or psychiatric care in their elementary or secondary schools. They are more educated about mental health and treatments, and their parents are more educated about these things, too.
Also, the introduction of the new psychiatric medications, mainly Prozac, about 20 years ago was a real watershed in terms of the marketing of a medication that is effective for depression and anxiety and that doesn’t have some of the negative side effects that older medications had. That helped break down some of the stigma.
by Sara Epstein Moninger