Janelle Johnson on College Counseling

Janelle Johnson on College Counseling

by Lawrence Rubin
Janelle Johnson helps us to understand the complexities and challenges of counseling college students.


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The Clinical Landscape

Lawrence Rubin: You’ve dedicated your career to college counseling, working with students who appear to experience many of the same problems clinicians encounter in outpatient clinics, crisis centers, and substance abuse facilities. Are college counseling centers microcosms for the clinical world outside of the campus?
Janelle Johnson: I would definitely say what we’re seeing at community colleges and at universities around the United States is reflective of what’s going on in the nation
LR: Can you give me some examples?
JJ: There has been a trend where colleges have been able to provide more support services so students can attend. In the past, these students were not able to attend because of a diagnosis or not having the right medication. They couldn’t perform in college. But now we see a lot of students coming that have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder and we have disability accessibility services to help them. Here at our college,
one third of the students we see are diagnosed with a mental health disability rather than a physical or learning disability
one third of the students we see are diagnosed with a mental health disability rather than a physical or learning disability.
LR: So, they come in with previously diagnosed mental health conditions which may run the gamut from adjustment and anxiety disorders all the way out to schizophrenia?
JJ: Absolutely. We see students every day that may have a lifelong diagnosis, who are able to come to college now, but they need resources around their diagnosis. Student counseling services often try to work with their outside providers because we see ourselves as providing supportive counseling. At larger universities, there is access to medical providers to help with monitoring medications. It depends on what your setting is at your school. If a college center does not have a medical provider, then we obtain a release, so we can actually work with a psychiatrist or a therapist that’s not on the campus, especially when it comes to monitoring medications for more serious diagnoses.

Emerging Adults

LR: So, these students that you’re seeing who have come with diagnoses are accustomed to being in treatment, are they open to being referred back into the community, even after they’re in a college counseling setting, or do they hope the counseling center will give them all they need?
JJ: That’s a very interesting question. It depends on their maturity level and how they’ve worked with medications in the past. Even with a seemingly simple diagnosis like ADHD students will often say, “I had these accommodations in high school. They sent me to a counselor.” Perhaps they had more of a medical professional do an assessment. But they come to college with the idea “well I’m in college now, I don’t need any of this.” I think most colleges experience students who come to college and try to maintain, but whatever their diagnosis is we also know that this is an age where certain mental illnesses start to show up.

Sometimes there’s an incident that brings a student like this to the counseling center where, depending upon its size, they may be able to receive an assessment. Large schools like the University of North Carolina has around 30 people on staff with psychiatrists, licensed psychologists and licensed counselors. But in a smaller private school or community college, we send them out into the community for some type of assessment or we refer them back to professionals they may have seen in the past
LR: So, a third of the students who visit the counseling center come with a previous diagnosis and may be accustomed to treatment, and they may be receptive to referrals back out into the community. What about the other two thirds? The ones who come to you and may not realize that they’re struggling or may have an emergent psychiatric disorder. How do you hook them?
JJ: What we see, especially with younger students, is emerging adulthood—that transition where they’re starting to be responsible for themselves. We try to talk to them about how they want to live their lives and how they want to express themselves as adults. In the past, when there have been mental health issues, a lot of that push either came from the parents or the school. Whereas in college, I think one of the mental health hooks that we offer them is saying, “you know, these are decisions you can make yourself. How do you want to be?” We give them some options as compared to the past where they were told what to do.

I’ve met a lot of students who were actually on medications for ADHD or who were taking antidepressants. Their parents said to them, “oh, you don’t need this anymore” and took them off. They were in that gray area of not functioning that well but having that parental oversight to get things done. And
then they come to college, and without their medications or follow up, the parents just expect them to do well, but they don’t
then they come to college, and without their medications or follow up, the parents just expect them to do well, but they don’t.
LR: So, these are emerging adults with whom you try to work developmentally around taking responsibility and seeking resources, which sometimes helps them to reach out for and effectively use treatment.
JJ: Yes, and at the community college level, we try to partner with community agencies so oftentimes, we can make those referrals right in our office with the student sitting here. We can put the student on the phone and facilitate appointments.

Getting Them Hooked

LR: So, you may actually be the frontline for these kids. Do you find that some of these students are resistant to the services that you provide? Or resistant to being referred out for more serious problems that they may not even think they have?
JJ: Yes, I think that we do see some resistance. The BITs (behavior intervention teams) or campus care teams sometimes need to intervene when students become disruptive in the classroom learning setting. We talk to them and try to engage them in counseling. Faculty and other students try to be patient, but I think when a student becomes disruptive, we try to figure out what’s going because we tell them that they are jeopardizing their ability to be on campus.
LR: It sounds like you have to be a little more heavy-handed or hope that the campus support teams can build enough of a relationship with the student and walk them over to the counseling center.
JJ: That’s absolutely true. You know, some people are very compliant. Other people are interested in finding out what’s going on with them because they may have that feeling like, “I don’t want to keep living like this. I don’t feel good.” But, then other students have a hard time recognizing that their behavior is disruptive or that there’s any issue. It really depends on how they’re supported when they’re at home and then how they’re treated. Sometimes I find students with very high intellectual functioning have their own unique mental health issues. It’s really difficult with some of those students because you can talk to them very intellectually and they can process what you’re saying, but
they feel like treatment is going to somehow interfere with their creativity or their ability to perform in school
they feel like treatment is going to somehow interfere with their creativity or their ability to perform in school.
LR: Is there a specific student that comes to mind?
JJ: A young male student I recently spoke with had a bipolar-one diagnosis and had recently received an ADHD diagnosis. He was watching his peers advancing on to their master’s degrees while he was struggling to complete school—but having this very fatalistic attitude about himself and about his ability to complete. But when you speak to him, when you look at his courses and grades, he’s got As. Schoolwork is not an issue but he lives in this sort of fatalistic place. “Why am I doing this? I’ll never amount to anything. I always fail at everything. Look what all my peers have already done.”

I think oftentimes a student feels overwhelmed on the campus and sort of wanders into our area hoping that someone will speak with them. What we usually do in that case is to obtain a release. We try to follow up to let the outside providers know that perhaps the student is in a downward spiral and perhaps he needs his medications checked.

That’s also where Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) comes in. It helps the students to look at thoughts that really aren’t helpful—the misconceptions that they have about themselves which sometimes can be very challenging. 
LR: Do you get a sense, at least on your campus, that there’s a stigma associated with going to the counseling center or being seen coming out of the counseling center? And if so, how do you address that on campus?
JJ: I have a sense of that most campuses are working really hard with different kinds of programs to remove that stigma around coming to the counseling center. We see different initiatives like the JED and Active Minds programs and peer support groups. I could give an example like suicide prevention. Some campuses do things where they lay out backpacks in the quad for how many students have been lost. And then they have a place where you can come out to honor somebody you’ve lost or write something about yourself—some kind of thing where you can participate. I feel like there is increasing recognition of mental health on campuses and getting help if you need it.

On our campus, in particular, and I think on a lot of campuses, we do classroom outreach. We appeal to students to refer other students to us. Sometimes we find that’s even better than faculty referring students. Staff bring students over. But we find sometimes if your peer, another student says to you, “Oh my gosh, you’re just going through a horrible time. You know there are counseling services here on campus? You know, let me walk you over there or let me show where that’s at.” We find that’s really beneficial. 

Challenges of Dual Enrollment

LR: Yours is a two-year college. But there are also high school students on campus. Do you find that these young people have unique clinical problems and challenges?
JJ: We’re seeing a lot of early admission, college dual-credit high schools on campuses. And at Santa Fe Community College we do have a high school right on our campus. It’s even happening at some four-year schools where there’s a high school house. They have some high school teachers and some high school curriculum, but almost immediately students are being placed into college-level classes. What you see happening is
they’re graduating from high schools one day and then receiving either a certificate or an associate’s degree the next
they’re graduating from high schools one day and then receiving either a certificate or an associate’s degree the next.

Regarding the mental health of these particular students, some are very high functioning, very motivated, but some of these students are in this fast-track program because they’ve not done well in the traditional public high school. They’ve had conduct problems or social interaction problems. The parents think, “we’ll take you over here to our college so you’ll be able to take college classes and you’ll be in this high school but it’ll be a lot more flexible for you.” But these students who haven’t performed well in the past may have an inability to follow through and can’t really manage themselves in college. One of our counselors in particular had a student with a very high level of ADHD who didn’t come to the counseling appointments on time. This sort of high school/college program can actually create more anxiety and more unmanageability and adjustment disorders for students.
LR: So, these kids may not be in an appropriate fit for college life just yet?
JJ: Perhaps, but it’s hard to say. What schools are doing with this early college high school programs are really a positive move for a lot of students because I think high school has let a lot of them down. I think high school is a really difficult time for a lot of students because of pressures around social media and bullying. So, being on a college campus really helps them be with other college students who are motivated to get a degree. But there is always the question of whether they are developmentally ready or mentally ready. And while there is a high school counselor here for those particular students, they are spending a lot of time on other things like scheduling and achievement testing.

Addressing Suicide on Campus

LR: Suicide rates are very high in the college-age demographic. How are college counseling centers set up to address that? 
JJ: I think a lot of college counseling centers are trying to address that with different kinds of programming. The JED foundation, for example, offers programming for college campuses. Active Minds is another one that offer all kinds of wellness programming for campuses that also addresses suicide prevention. Also the American Foundation on Suicide Prevention in New York.

Suicide is the second-highest cause of death for our demographic.
Suicide is the second-highest cause of death for our demographic. Even if you go up in age a little bit, which is the demographic for a lot of community colleges, then suicide is the third-highest cause of death. So, I think on most campuses we are all actively working with programming and bringing support.

At Santa Fe Community College we actually have a certified faculty member do Mental Health First Aid Training. Mental Health First Aid is a program that originally came out of Australia that has been embraced in the United States. It’s a day-long program for people in the community who are not mental health professionals. Here at Santa Fe, it would be our campus community—our faculty, staff, other students who take the training. 
LR: So, when it comes to the more serious disorders, and suicide in particular, it’s critical that college counseling centers work in conjunction with community agencies and have programs on campus so that students are never alone. And neither are college counselors alone because they’re always linked to other resources?
JJ: Right. College counselors work with these different available resources, create their own programming or belong to these organizations that provide free programming.
The idea is to eliminate the stigma, raise awareness and have people participate.
The idea is to eliminate the stigma, raise awareness and have people participate. The campus is a community and we encourage students to participate in these suicide prevention programs and to be part of a campus community that supports helping students reach out. People need to recognize the signs and to be comfortable approaching people.

Disconnected from Families

LR: On a related note, we know that LGBT youth are at particularly high risk for suicide. How do you address the needs of these students?
JJ: A lot of campuses are looking to find ways to support students who are in the process of self-identifying or have someone on their staff assigned to programming in that area who works on removing stigma. In New Mexico, which is a very Catholic state with a lot of immigrants, some of these families persist in saying to their children, “your religion doesn’t accept this. You can’t do this. If you do this, you can’t live with us.” So, we try to work on that by asking these students, “How can you speak with your family? How do you want to live your life?” These students still recognize their religious teachings but don’t want that being used against their identity.
LR: So, you try to work within their families and with the cultural issues that impact their emerging LGBT identities?
JJ: Campuses will either look for programming or design their own programming around supporting these students, and then work with them on these issues in counseling.
A lot of these students actually feel safer on campus than they do at home.
A lot of these students actually feel safer on campus than they do at home.
LR: Speaking of unique challenges, what about first-generation college students.
JJ: I do believe they have unique clinical challenges because many of them do not have a history of going to college. Additionally, many of these young people also have to help out financially in their homes. So they live at home, come to college but also work to help pay the rent, the utilities and the car payments. And then there are issues around their transition to adulthood. We help them speak to their parents about what they need to be a successful college student.

Some of them will say “my parents are making me feel like I’m crazy because I need more time to study and I can’t take care of my little brother or pick him up from school every day.” It’s an interesting dynamic that plays into their mental health because when they don’t feel supported or understood at home, they experience anxiety, depression and acting out behaviors. It’s not that families don’t support going to college—they absolutely do. But they don’t know what that means or what it looks like.

Raising Awareness

LR: There’s a lot of research into the short and long-term effects of adverse early childhood experiences and the need for trauma-informed education. The idea is that some of these kids are coming to school with such a heavy trauma burden that they can’t concentrate, can’t relate and are at high risk for drinking or self-harm. Have you seen this on your campus and how do you deal with that?
JJ: There are different kinds of trauma. Here
in New Mexico, we have a lot of Native Americans, so we talk about historical trauma
in New Mexico, we have a lot of Native Americans, so we talk about historical trauma. In addition to these historical events, some of our students come from a background of trauma in their home or in their childhoods. In the college counseling setting, we work with these students around issues of safety, peer support and collaboration—empowering the student to have a voice while they are exploring their issues. We are not dismissing what has happened to them but we’re looking at how the therapy works for them, helping them to move forward with that trauma and not to feel re-traumatized by being in our college setting.
LR: Are drinking and substance abuse significant problems on college campuses?
JJ: We’re not seeing it as much on commuter campuses like ours that do not have housing, although I do think it is a presenting problem in our counseling centers. It’s different on residential campuses, and particularly in the dorms. But we do see students coming to campus who are inebriated, or who have problems that other students are reporting. They may be coming to class and they sound like they’re drunk or other students can smell it on them.

I do think it is an issue that is hard issue to address. College counseling centers try to work with students on maintaining their sobriety. I think if they’re actively using or they can’t even function then it is critical to refer them to treatment center. Another student may binge drink only on weekends and otherwise be high functioning, but it also starts to catch up with them. They may not be getting proper nutrition, or may be having problems with sleep, hygiene or relationships. These effects of drinking begin to interfere with their functioning in the college setting. With these students, we try to talk more about responsible drinking and help them to understand how their drinking interferes with their learning and progress and help them explore how they can be more responsible. 

Serving our Veterans

LR: You had mentioned that you have a veteran’s program on campus? Are there unique clinical needs for these students?
JJ: Often college campuses have veteran support centers which provide resources for veterans and their families. These resources include counseling services. Although we are not housed with the veteran’s service center on our campus, veterans know about our counseling services. We also have a veteran’s hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which is about 60 miles away and a veteran's counseling center in Santa Fe.

Our veteran’s center also brings counselors onto our campus about once a week to meet with the veterans. This is not to say that some of the veterans don’t come to our regular college counseling center. Having served first and then coming to college can be a challenge and clinical needs depend on whether or not they are a combat veteran. The
combat veterans may feel that there is a stigma around coming to the regular college counselor
combat veterans may feel that there is a stigma around coming to the regular college counselor who hasn’t experienced what they have or have a military background. Larger campuses actually hire counselors who have served in the military. This can be helpful because veterans have trauma about reintegrating. They’re used to following authority and a more established and structured day. Sometimes they have difficulty with younger students who aren’t respectful. 
LR: Or knowledgeable!
JJ: Sometimes, these younger, less sensitive or aware students don’t conduct themselves very well in class which is very troubling for veterans. And then of course, we do have veterans that have PTSD or depression; situations that require more treatment. But a lot of times, I think it is more about adjustment, depending on how long they served and the college program they’re in.

CBT and Beyond

LR: We’ve been talking about various treatment needs of college students and I know that CBT and other empirically supported treatments are the rage these days. I’m wondering if it also dominates the college counseling landscape.
JJ: I think there is a lot of support on college campuses to use research-supported therapy modalities. CBT has a lot of related therapies including DBT, solution focused and even positive psychology. The reason it works in our setting is because we’re tasked to triage students that come in. There can be a high need for services and students oftentimes wait to get in to see a counselor or a mental health provider. So, I think we want to use therapies that we know can assist with more immediate behavior change.

We don’t have the luxury for long-term care with students.
We don’t have the luxury—and I don’t know if it is a luxury—for long-term care with students. So, those kinds of therapies can really be useful. You can give the student homework and worksheets—something they can hold onto so that they can feel like they’re moving forward and like they’ve accomplished something. I’ve even had students with whom I’ve suggested a reward system to help when they were struggling with something and want to see improvement. Larger campuses can even incorporate these kinds of therapies into a group setting and can direct students to be part of therapy groups.
LR: Would you say that college counselors are pressured to use these proven methods and not encouraged to use creative-expressive modalities that incorporate art, play and music? 
JJ: We’re not forced to do that—it would depend on the counseling center and how many staff members they have. I do see the creative going on as well. In New Mexico, Southwestern College offers a master’s degree in art therapy and I’ve had interns from there on my campus who have done art therapy with our students and they’ve really liked that.

There is some room for creativity, but you have to be working to move the student forward especially because you’re working in a limited timeframe; a college semester or a college quarter and then there’s a break and they go home. I am at a community college where we are looking toward a goal-oriented type of therapy. If they bring in extreme trauma or are in an abusive relationship or are fighting an addiction, treatment is better is referred to a community partner. We use whatever modality is supportive of their counseling and helps them to meet their goals.

And for most of them, their goal is to complete college, find a career and move forward. So, we try to facilitate that. If there is a major mental illness diagnosis, we make sure that they have a community provider who may be doing something like DBT groups. I don’t feel like college counseling can replace that.

College Counseling Competencies

LR: With regard to the provision of treatment, what are some the unique competencies that a college counselor should possess?
JJ: At the university level, a lot of schools hire licensed doctoral-level clinical directors. The counseling staff is sometimes made up of licensed counselors. In New Mexico, I’m a licensed clinical mental health counselor. Some college centers hire licensed clinical social workers who are in clinical practice. That’s is the more traditional set up. Our organization, the American College Counseling Association expects that any counselors working in a college setting be licensed.

What we see in California is an interesting example where most of the universities are using doctoral level licensed psychologists in their counseling centers. In their community colleges, they are using master’s level clinicians. But they don’t have licensure at that level. It’s hard for me to talk across the board, however the American Counseling Association has been working on licensure portability along with licensure accountability.

I would say that if you’re going to work in a college setting, you should be licensed in the same manner that you would to work in a private practice or at any other clinical facility—you need the degree and the experience that comes from practicum and internship to do this work. Unless, that is, you’re in a college where they’re calling you a counselor and you’re doing academic advising or something like that. If you’re in a college mental health counseling center, you’re doing the same kind of work anybody would be doing as a mental health professional anywhere else. The scope of your practice may be limited in that you have to do more community resource referrals. But, your knowledge and ability including understanding the DSM, various diagnoses and treatment modalities fully impacts your work every day. You need to be able to do it.
LR: Do college counselors need to like teenagers and emerging adults? Wouldn’t that be a prerequisite?
JJ: I think that you want to be able to work with that population. Three years ago, I started an internship program here at Santa Fe Community College. More often we see these at larger 4-year schools, it’s a newer model at community colleges. Every intern I’ve had has said the same thing with regard to the diversity of our student population. Our students are anywhere from early high school-age, 14-year-olds all the way up to 70-year-olds. You know, I mean those are the far reaches of the scope. We also have a lot of students who come to re-career on our campus that are in their 30s and 40s; and then the occasional student is in their 50s. So, you have to be able to want to work with a big population. At a more traditional university, you are more likely to work with traditional college-age students.

Closing Thoughts

LR: Janelle, what got you interested in college counseling and what keeps you interested?
JJ: When I got out of school, I worked in a methadone clinic with clients who were on parole and probation. Even though I liked working with them, the recidivism and the relapse relates were so high.
I felt like I wanted to work in an environment where I was supporting growth and accomplishment
I felt like I wanted to work in an environment where I was supporting growth and accomplishment.

That’s what got me interested. Early in my career, I had been going to the American Counseling Association conferences and attended one of the conferences for the American College Counseling Association. Right away, I was just struck with the feeling that those people spoke my language and there was so much support for this career. We’re doing so much to help students. I enjoy my career and working with students.

I now am able to facilitate counseling interns on my campus to complete their degrees and move forward. So, I feel like a college campus is a really positive environment. 
LR: My daughter’s friend is at an out-of-state school, and she’s had her share of challenges adjusting. She is a sophomore who is allowed to bring one pet from home. Do you have something like that, and can it be useful?
JJ: That’s interesting. I believe the University of Vermont has a wellness environment dorm and program for students where they’re incorporating a lot of different things. We have students who bring emotional support animals and we have to consider their rights under the ADA. Many of my colleagues in counseling centers actually have trained and certified a dog as the therapy dog for the counseling center. So, when you come in for a counseling meeting, the dog is out there. You can pet the dog while you’re waiting. That’s getting to be pretty common.
LR: Technology is entering the counseling field. The Higher Education Mental Health Alliance has created a set of guidelines for distance counseling. Do you find that’s gaining some traction in college counseling centers?
JJ: The American College Counseling Association is partnering with the Higher Education Mental Health Alliance (HEMA), in support of creating these counseling guidelines to help students in online programs. We have a distance employee assistance program where we use Zoom or Skype so employees don’t need to physically go into the counseling office.
LR: What about for the students when they are on break or off campus?
JJ: We are not currently engaged in distance counseling at our campus, but I know that it’s going to be happening because we are seeing more online programming. If you can’t help them find counseling in the community, then maybe you are going to offer that distance counseling. That’s where I think HEMA has tried to create guidelines that include best practices. Since it’s happening in the workplace, college campuses are going to be mirroring a lot of what we see there.
LR: What advice can you offer to therapists in the community who might be referred a client who is simultaneously being treated at a college counseling center?
JJ: If you’re in the position of working with a college student and you’re concerned about what’s going on, it would be a good idea to connect with the college counselor to see what resources have been made available for that student on the campus. If a college counselor reaches out to you, get a release from the student. I don’t think that college counselors are trying to replace support that a student may have in the community, but I think it is important to work together for the benefit of the student

I think that sometimes people have the wrong idea that a college counselor is a glorified advisor which is not true. On college campuses, the bulk of counselors are professionals who are also licensed with advanced degrees in psychology and counseling. So, they’re your colleagues who want to work with you. They are totally experienced and credentialed to do the work.
LR: On that note Janelle, I would like to say that you are indeed an advocate for students, college counseling, and the American College Counseling Association. Thank you so much.
JJ: Thank you.

© 2019 Psychotherapy.net LLC
Janelle Johnson Janelle Johnson, MA, LPC, is President of the American College Counseling Association (ACCA) and the senior counselor at Santa Fe Community College. She holds a masters degree in counseling from the University of New Mexico and was awarded the State Service Award for Exemplary Dedication and Service in Enhancing the Quality of Life for All Peoples in New Mexico by the New Mexico Secretary of State. She has lectured nationally on college counseling and the counseling needs of college students. 
Lawrence Rubin Lawrence ‘Larry’ Rubin, PhD, ABPP, is a Florida licensed psychologist, and registered play therapist. He currently teaches in the doctoral program in Psychology at Nova Southeastern University and retired Professor of Counselor Education at St. Thomas University. A board-certified diplomate in clinical child and adolescent psychology, he has published numerous book chapters and edited volumes in psychotherapy and popular culture including the Handbook of Medical Play Therapy and Child Life: Interventions in Clinical and Medical Settings and Diagnosis and Treatment Planning Skills: A Popular Culture Casebook Approach. Larry is the editor at Psychotherapy.net.