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Breaking Barriers: Enhancing Student Access to Mental Health Counseling

How facilitating an introductory program for individual students to meet with a mental health counselor reduced stigma associated with mental health care

What Was the Problem?

Medical school is a challenging time for all students. As with many other medical schools, Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine (MCASOM) offers students the support of a licensed mental health counselor on campus free of charge when needed. While there was very good feedback from those students who took advantage of this service, there was concern that not all who might benefit were using it. Reasons for this included:

  • Discomfort about sharing personal information with someone they didn't know or someone “internal”

  • General stigma about mental health treatment

  • Misunderstanding about the confidentiality of the process

About the Intervention

Student Affairs leadership developed an initiative for new medical students to voluntarily opt in to a program to meet with the mental health counselor at each campus. This program was developed to facilitate connecting these students with mental health counselors at each site and to raise awareness of the resources available for learners.

Through this program, each new student can meet individually with the mental health counselor at their campus unless they specifically choose not to do so. This way, there is no stigma in that first meeting, the student can put a face to a name, and the student may begin to recognize the value in asking for an individual appointment when needed. The intent is to simply acquaint students with the counselor and services offered, but students can use the session as a formal mental health counseling appointment if desired.

“Meeting the mental health counselor was really useful. This way I know how to reach out for help when I want it.”

Barriers

Although infrequent, one barrier was well-intended faculty who misunderstood the purpose or scope of mental health counseling, and occasionally set erroneous expectations about the purpose of the appointment or the breadth of counseling services. For example, some faculty thought that the counselor would meet all mental health needs, when in fact MCASOM refers to community mental health professionals when long-term psychiatric or psychological treatment is needed, or for some instances of immediate crisis intervention. Or, in another example, faculty thought that the meeting with the counselor was a suicide check. MCASOM has addressed this barrier by developing written FAQs for learners and faculty about available mental health counseling services.

An additional barrier is time—or student perception of time away from studying—and the relative importance of this meeting. MCASOM repeats the “get to know your counselor” philosophy early in the third year for students who move to a new campus for their clinical years (ie, branch campus in Florida), so they will know the counselor on their new campus. Attending a counseling session can mean time away from clinical rotation; as a result, students may decline counseling that could be beneficial to them in favor of their rotation. To address this concern, the counselors have after-hours appointments available and can also be flexible in their schedules to work around clinical assignment times.

Results

Within the first year of instituting the program, MCASOM has seen a more than 100% increase in the utilization of mental health counselors, with the number of counseling visits more than doubling within the first year. About half of the students did request that the first introductory meeting be transitioned into an initial mental health counseling appointment. Students who attended the introductory meeting stated that they felt a great deal more comfortable using these services again in the future. Additionally, they recognized that mental health counselling services are confidential, and that the counselor was not only skilled but someone they could and would feel comfortable seeking out.

“It was nice to get to meet with her in person. I used to see a therapist in the past, and I would like to schedule sessions with her in the near future.”

Students have used this platform to either initiate counseling or to ask general information about the typical reasons for scheduling an appointment, whether they could contact the counselor for personal issues that they may be faced with, and how to schedule appointments for future. The initiative has also provided a way to validate students and to assure them that no concern was silly or not worth addressing.

Furthermore, the mental health counselors who are licensed in all three campus states (Arizona, Florida, and Minnesota) can provide cross-campus coverage by teleconference as needed. Overall, this program appears to have broken several barriers, including decreasing stigma associated with seeking mental health counseling and therapy.

About the Organization

The Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science is composed of 1 college and 5 schools. There are 4000 active students and trainees in 400+ programs. Mayo Clinic locations around the globe see more than 1.3 million patients each year. Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine (MCASOM), which originated in Rochester, Minnesota, has branch campuses in Arizona and Florida. The Arizona campus, like Rochester, is a four-year MD program. The Florida campus offers a third-year and fourth-year medical school program.

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Article Information

Disclosure Statement: Unless noted, all individuals in control of content reported no relevant financial relationships.

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