The director of the Student Counseling and Resource Service talks
about why undergraduates seek advice, and what kinds of help they
M. Silverman has directed Chicagos 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 nations best.
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. Thats average for our peer institutionsschools
like the Ivies and Johns Hopkins, Washington University, and Emory.
We see more women than menabout 60 percent to 40 percent.
That also holds true on campuses nationally.
undergraduates come to us has to do with issues of adjusting to
a new environmentnew 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 ones strengthsand ones limitationscan
result in seeking counseling to reestablish a balance.
At the same
time, most major psychiatric disordersmajor depression, alcohol
and other drug abuse, anxiety disorders, and bipolar illnesshave
their onset in the 18- to 22-year-old age range, and its to
be expected that we see some undergraduates with the onset of such
is that we have a wonderful network of College faculty and staffprofessors,
resident heads and assistants, campus ministers, and coacheswho
encourage students to seek support before problems interfere with
their ability to function effectively as students.
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 Colleges placement offices
to talk about the stress of finding a job and how to help students
traverse the search process. Weve 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 Collegefor 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.
many students come for academic help, how many for psychological
purely academic concerns, and some purely psychological concerns.
But cognitive and emotional problems often overlap: a student whos
depressed is going to have academic problems, and a student whos
having academic problems is going to have self-esteem problems.
Its 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
basically a crisis intervention and brief therapy service. Most
problems can be addressed within a quartersomewhere 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 theres
a lot of gray: to know youre in a world thats 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 whats going on at home or with
significant othersthats 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,
thats synonymous with being a student at Chicago.
individual counseling, what kinds of counseling do you offer?
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 issuesgender concerns,
for example: gender identity, coming out, sexual orientation. Or
eating concernsthat 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 Teamthrough 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 were still involved.
We consult with the editors of the Womens 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.
Its great to have our offices at 5737 Universitywe used
to be on Drexel Avenue, off the beaten track. Students appreciate
the message of our nearness.
confidentiality ever an issue?
adhere to the State of Illinois Mental Health Code. A student must
sign our consent form in order for any information to leave our
buildingverbal or written. Confidentiality is a top priority
kinds of support does your staff provide when a crisis occurs?
we do after a crisisan accident, a death, an assaultis
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 factsnot 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, thats 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
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
illthe 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 cant legally go out and grab kids by their collars and
say, You must come see us. Students either have to be
referredto be identified by the faculty and staff networkor
they have to come in on their own.
big an issue are substance-abuse problems at Chicago?
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 students health or the health of other studentsdrinking
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 campusits not as big a problem as
at many other places, but that doesnt mean we dont worry
about it. Were 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, theyre
a problem. Theyre clearly illegal, clearly have health consequences.
Memory, concentration, and productivity all get affected. Ultimately,
using interferes with your ability to be a student.
did Chicago get named the nations best counseling center?
a mystery to me how the Gourman Report, which ranked us No.
1 in 1997, is compiled. Its a fun distinction, but it carries
a certain amount of trepidationwhat happens if you go from
No. 1 to No. 2? Or No. 100?
In the 1998
edition, which is now the Princeton Review, were still
No. 1. In my heart of hearts, I think were one of the very
best. That shouldnt come across as bravado. Im blessed
with a senior, dedicated staff of 18 professionalsthe majority
are part timewho are all licensed, all credentialed, and all
very committed to the U of C and to its students. And the entire
University understandsand is supportive ofthe work we
do. Thats why we feel that were No. 1.