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Morton M. Silverman: The director of the Student Counseling and Resource Service talks about why undergraduates seek advice, and what kinds of help they get.

Morton M. Silverman has directed Chicago’s Student Counseling and Resource Service (SCRS) since 1987. With his B.A. from Penn and his M.D. from Northwestern, he teaches in the Pritzker School of Medicine, has written on substance abuse by young people, and recently completed the largest-ever U.S. study of campus suicides. In several surveys, the SCRS, which serves all U of C students, has been ranked the nation’s best.

How many undergraduates use the Student Counseling and Resource Service?

We see 10 to 11 percent of the undergraduate student body each year, or about 400 students. That’s average for our peer institutions—schools like the Ivies and Johns Hopkins, Washington University, and Emory. We see more women than men—about 60 percent to 40 percent. That also holds true on campuses nationally.

One reason undergraduates come to us has to do with issues of adjusting to a new environment—new values, expectations, and social mores. Undergraduates are still developing psychologically, cognitively, and emotionally. Many see the University as a place to explore new options. Discovering one’s strengths—and one’s limitations—can result in seeking counseling to reestablish a balance.

At the same time, most major psychiatric disorders—major depression, alcohol and other drug abuse, anxiety disorders, and bipolar illness—have their onset in the 18- to 22-year-old age range, and it’s to be expected that we see some undergraduates with the onset of such disorders.

Another reason is that we have a wonderful network of College faculty and staff—professors, resident heads and assistants, campus ministers, and coaches—who encourage students to seek support before problems interfere with their ability to function effectively as students.

How do you get the word out about the services you offer?

We do lots of programs and training sessions. In December, for example, our office met with the GSB and the College’s placement offices to talk about the stress of finding a job and how to help students traverse the search process. We’ve had in-service training with the College advisers. I consult with the trainers at the gym. Other staff meet monthly with the Dean of Students’ office in the College—for example, we had a meeting last spring about becoming more aware of factors that impinge on how students from other cultures adjust to life in a Western university. I meet weekly with the Dean of Student Services staff to talk about issues like alcohol and drug use policy, housing, use of the Internet and
e-mail, civility. Our academic skills counselors regularly consult with other offices and present programs on topics like study skills and time management.

How many students come for academic help, how many for psychological counseling?

Some have purely academic concerns, and some purely psychological concerns. But cognitive and emotional problems often overlap: a student who’s depressed is going to have academic problems, and a student who’s having academic problems is going to have self-esteem problems. It’s not uncommon to be seen by a therapist to address psychological needs and at the same time to receive study skills intervention. Where medication is indicated, the psychiatrists at the center can prescribe it.

We’re basically a crisis intervention and brief therapy service. Most problems can be addressed within a quarter—somewhere between six and ten sessions. If a student does require more intervention than we can provide here, we will recommend it. Our policy is to encourage students to manage their problems with our help, and to give them the support to see how they do on their own. They know they can come back later and revisit some problems.

This age range has to make decisions about relationships with family or significant others, their gender identity and roles, and careers. The process is accentuated in an environment where so many options are available. Part of being at a university like this is learning that there’s a lot of gray: to know you’re in a world that’s imperfect and then find your role, using your talents and skills and abilities to further your beliefs.

If, on top of those normal developmental processes, you add depression, anxiety, loneliness, difficulties with what’s going on at home or with significant others—that’s when students appear at our doorstep. Although the stigma associated with seeking help has gone down significantly in the 1990s, students would not come here if they felt they could fix it themselves. Our job is to help them get beyond their problems in a way that they feel comfortable with, that’s synonymous with being a student at Chicago.

Besides individual counseling, what kinds of counseling do you offer?

Our stock-in-trade is individual treatment. Our students are very bright, verbal, introspective. They want individual attention. At the same time, we do offer some groups organized around particular issues—gender concerns, for example: gender identity, coming out, sexual orientation. Or eating concerns—that group began here and now meets independently.

And we work with lots of counseling groups. We train and consult with the student Niteline program, a phone hotline. We started ADAPT —the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Team—through a federal grant, and we provided space for the Sexual Violence Prevention Resource Center and managed its budget for a number of years; both are now affiliated with the Dean of Student Services, though we’re still involved. We consult with the editors of the Women’s Guide to the U of C. We work on new-student orientation programs.

We try to be part of the life of the University without being very public. It’s great to have our offices at 5737 University—we used to be on Drexel Avenue, off the beaten track. Students appreciate the message of our nearness.

Is confidentiality ever an issue?

We strictly adhere to the State of Illinois Mental Health Code. A student must sign our consent form in order for any information to leave our building—verbal or written. Confidentiality is a top priority for us.

What kinds of support does your staff provide when a crisis occurs?

One thing we do after a crisis—an accident, a death, an assault—is identify the people whom the event may place at increased risk. Or they identify themselves. We go out to the dorms and work with groups of students affected by a crisis. We also work to demystify the event. We want to provide the facts—not in a cold, harsh way, but in a context that helps individuals regain their sense of control, mastery, and predictability. As humans, we try to rationalize others’ behavior. If we have a story that makes sense to us, we can say, “Oh, of course, that’s why....” But human behavior is multi-determined and multi-factorial. The difficulties that contribute to a suicide, for example, are not always obvious, logical, or rational. Our role is to help people bring closure to the tragedy. So we work with campus ministries to plan memorial services, we help students with alternative ways of dealing with the loss.

This work takes place around all kinds of traumatic events. We do similar counseling on a less visible scale when students come to us because a parent or grandparent has died, their parents are divorcing or ill—the whole range of losses, whether sudden and tragic or chronic and expected.

We cannot totally prevent tragedies like suicides from occurring. The fact that suicides occur only about half as frequently on campuses as in the general population is an indication of the positive extent to which colleges and universities work therapeutically with troubled students. But we can’t legally go out and grab kids by their collars and say, “You must come see us.” Students either have to be referred—to be identified by the faculty and staff network—or they have to come in on their own.

How big an issue are substance-abuse problems at Chicago?

First, because experimentation is common to this age group, we try to make a distinction between use, misuse, and abuse. Each carries different connotations. Take alcohol. The No. 1 drug of choice on all campuses is alcohol; about 90 percent of all undergraduates report some use of alcohol during their college careers. The question is: Is someone able to responsibly use alcohol? Misuse occurs when drinking poses a threat to a student’s health or the health of other students—drinking and driving, for example, or if the user becomes violent, disrespecting the privileges and rights of others. Abuse is both a health problem and a public-health problem.

We do have binge drinking on campus—it’s not as big a problem as at many other places, but that doesn’t mean we don’t worry about it. We’re not immune to substance abuse problems of any kind. We surveyed students in the mid-’90s, and the self-reported drug use numbers were similar to, but not higher than, those at other major universities. What seems slightly higher here is the use of marijuana. The use or abuse of drugs like cocaine or heroin is lower than on other campuses, but when they are used, they’re a problem. They’re clearly illegal, clearly have health consequences. Memory, concentration, and productivity all get affected. Ultimately, using interferes with your ability to be a student.

How did Chicago get named the nation’s best counseling center?

It’s a mystery to me how the Gourman Report, which ranked us No. 1 in 1997, is compiled. It’s a fun distinction, but it carries a certain amount of trepidation—what happens if you go from No. 1 to No. 2? Or No. 100?

In the 1998 edition, which is now the Princeton Review, we’re still No. 1. In my heart of hearts, I think we’re one of the very best. That shouldn’t come across as bravado. I’m blessed with a senior, dedicated staff of 18 professionals—the majority are part time—who are all licensed, all credentialed, and all very committed to the U of C and to its students. And the entire University understands—and is supportive of—the work we do. That’s why we feel that we’re No. 1.

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