Priesthill Counseling Service

In 2015, it should be easy to get discreet, competent counseling without sacrificing one’s privacy or sense of self-esteem. Covenant College’s website says that the Priesthill Center offers just such a counseling service. But some Covenant students are complaining.

After hearing both positive and negative reviews of the counseling service from students, the Bagpipe set out to report on all angles of the story. Here’s what we found.

Priesthill Center. Photo by Michael Fuller.

Priesthill Center. Photo by Michael Fuller.

Reviews of the Priesthill Center, Covenant College’s counseling service, are mixed. Recently, students have expressed frustration over being turned away from the center, have felt their problems minimized by counselors, and have expressed concern about the Priesthill Center’s confidentiality.

“Each person’s experience is different,” an anonymous student who we’ll call Taylor said of the the Priesthill Center’s counseling service. Taylor did not bring high expectations into her counseling session, and was not impressed with her counselor: “I didn’t feel comfortable with my counselor… I didn’t feel as if I could tell them everything that was going on because I felt that they might not understand. And they kept going back to tips on how to do better in school rather than giving me tips of how to emotionally stabilize myself.”

Essential to a good counselor is the ability to gain a sense of trust from those whom they counsel. Yet counselors are often given only one 45-minute session with a student, who may or may not bring trust issues and previous counseling experience to the session. It’s a tough situation, though not an uncommon one.

Covenant’s counselors certainly don’t lack passion for their jobs: “I think we’re all counselors because we love our job and feel very purposeful in it,” says Shan Alexander, one of five part-time counselors who make up the Priesthill Center’s counseling staff.

Alexander, who works every weekday and sees about 30-35 students in an average week, says that the center provides 100 hours of counseling to students per week. Counseling is free.

With the exception of one student intern, all of the Priesthill Center’s counselors are licensed professional counselors who have outside practices. The center added a fifth counselor this semester after appointment slots reached capacity early each semester for the last two years.

Alexander says that stress, anxiety, and depression are the most common issues she counsels students through at the center. The counseling service also deals with issues such as relational conflicts, premarital counseling, sexual abuse recovery, trauma recovery, grief, family of origin, and occasionally more severe mental illnesses.

“We try to never turn a student away,” she adds. “Occasionally, a student needs to go to Janet Hulsey because the issue is more academic. If we are booked to capacity and the issue is purely spiritual, we refer the student to Chaplain Lowe.”

But another anonymous student says that she was turned away last year after being told that her issue wasn’t as pressing as other students’. “I’ve still never been to Covenant’s counseling service,” she says.

After her uncle was murdered, she went to the Priesthill Center for counseling during the grieving process. She was told that they wouldn’t be able to fit her in because they had “other, more serious issues” to deal with.

“I felt like my problems were minimized,” she admits. “They didn’t refer me to someone else and they never followed up. I didn’t want to go to them with other problems because of this experience. I don’t know if I can recommend the center based on my experience, but I’m sure they do a good job with other students’ issues.”

Confidentiality is another concern voiced by students. One anonymous student, who spoke with the Bagpipe only on condition of anonymity, was sent home for several days after what he claims was a breach of confidentiality on the part of the counseling service.

The student, who we’ll call Kal, went weekly for counseling through his depression during both fall and spring semester last year. After admitting to suicidal thoughts later in the semester, everything changed.

Kal, who says that he verbally committed more than once not to harm himself,  talked to a friend about his suicidal thoughts, who went to the counseling service for help. Kal does not know if his friend made the issue sound immediately pressing.

What happened next came as a surprise: a counselor told school administration, who contacted Kal’s parents. He was sent home until he obtained a physician’s signed statement that he was mentally stable.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) protects a patient’s right to medical privacy. Aside from records shared among medical professionals and records shared for billing reasons, patient confidentiality can, and sometimes must, be legally broken for any of the following reasons: 1) with patient permission 2) to prevent or reduce a serious threat to anyone’s health or safety, including the patient’s (suicide) 3) to report suspected abuse, neglect, or domestic violence 4) a court-ordered subpoena.

Covenant’s counseling service, which is governed by both HIPAA and state ethics laws, is certainly bound by these disclosure rules. With regard to suicide prevention, counselors must “take whatever steps are necessary to prevent harm.” (Remley & Herlihy, 2001) Students may be assured that Kal’s situation was unique, and that such a scenario will almost certainly not happen to them.

Shan Alexander says that the vast majority of breaches of confidentiality result from students not being able to verbally agree not to harm themselves.

She estimates that a bulk of her clients at the Priesthill Center are freshmen and seniors, who usually come for help with transition anxiety. Alexander splits her time fairly evenly between her private practice and the Priesthill Center.

Counseling through the Priesthill Center, Alexander says, is consistent with the worldview Covenant teaches in the classroom: “Counselors have a desire to walk with students in a way that is compatible with Covenant’s theology.”

Andrew Fultz, who went to the Priesthill Center last semester for counseling on how to deal with stress, was impressed by the professional, objective opinion of his counselor, and says that his experience was generally positive.

“The counselor didn’t give out the impression that he had all the answers. And that was a good thing—I didn’t want to go to someone who already knew all the answers. I wanted to work through what was going on and then find the answer.”

Fultz was told that his counselor would be available for follow up if needed. He says that he would recommend Covenant’s counseling service to his friends, saying that it can be helpful to get another opinion when working through personal issues.

Students looking for competent, professional counseling that is free of charge and on-campus seem to find what they are looking for in the Priesthill Center’s counseling service. The counseling service is certified at the state level and is staffed by the same counselors who students might see if they payed $100 an hour or more off the mountain. Negative experiences tend to be unique situations, and the center seems to be following state and national confidentiality rules.

Although it’s impossible to answer every question about Covenant’s counseling service, students can know that the Priesthill Center offers professional counseling services free of charge—which for the money-strapped college students that we all are, should be reason enough to make a trip to Jackson Hall.