I’ve tried to start this blog post a dozen times, but every time, I get bogged down in the introduction. The thing is, for a lot of reasons and for a lot of people, it can be hard to talk about mental health. And that’s a problem because mental health is vital to our overall health and well-being as graduate students and people. But not talking about mental health can be incredibly isolating. This is especially the case when you a graduate student experiencing severe anxiety, depression, or suicide ideation*. It’s easy to feel like you are alone and no one is going to be able to understand what you are going through or be able to help you through to the other side.
Let me start by saying, unequivocally, you are not alone. I know this because I’ve been there. With a lot of support and encouragement in the last year, I found helpful, supportive faces at the Counseling Center and at McKinley Health Center. These are just two of the resources available to you as a graduate student at Illinois, and for a lot of students, they are a good first step in the path to addressing and managing mental health problems and coping with the stress of life.
This blog post will explain the process of setting up a first appointment with the University Counseling Center and what to expect once you arrive there. An important note: If you are currently experiencing a health or safety emergency for which you need immediate medical or police attention, call 911. For mental health emergencies call the 24-hour Crisis Line at (217) 359-4141.
About the Counseling Center
The Counseling Center isn’t just for undergrads – all registered graduate students who have paid the mandatory health service fee can visit the Counseling Center free of charge.
The Counseling Center provides services to help students address many academic, relational, social, and emotional concerns. Staff members are trained and prepared to help you through whatever issues you may need assistance with, whether it be mental health issues like depression and anxiety, or academic issues such as time management and studying skills, or adjustment issues such as transition to grad school, work-life balance, or homesickness. They are also an excellent referral tool for additional help outside the university if you need to see a specialist or require longer-term therapy.
Making the Call
All initial appointments at the Counseling Center are made same-day. Practically, this means that on the day that you want to see a counselor for the first time, you need to be up and ready to call right at 7:50 a.m., especially during typically high-stress times like midterms and finals. Appointments for the day will fill up early, so calling right at 7:50 a.m. gives you the best chance of securing an appointment that day.
For a lot of people, calling the center on the phone can be a source of anxiety. Why can’t you just make an appointment online? The initial appointment reservation system is designed to help people at their moment of greatest need and to help reduce the number of cancellations and no-shows so that the Counseling Center can serve as many students as possible each day. Don’t worry—once you have your initial appointment with a counselor, you will be able to make future appointments directly with your counselor in person—no more having to get up early and call.
Ready to take action? Call the Counseling Center at 217-333-3704 as close to 7:50 a.m. as possible on any weekday.
Getting Ready for Your Appointment
You don’t need to do anything special to prepare for your counseling appointment. It’s normal to feel nervous but you don’t have to be—all that you need to do is bring yourself and your iCard with you to the appointment.
Plan to arrive at the Turner Student Services Building about 30 minutes before your appointment if possible. The check-in desk for the Counseling Center is on the second floor of the building, which is accessible by stairs or elevator.
Once you arrive at the Counseling Center, you’ll be checked in by a receptionist and given an iPad and some paper forms to complete in the waiting area. After you complete the forms, you’ll return them to the check-in desk and wait for your counselor to come find you in the waiting room.
Your First Appointment
If the thought of a counseling appointment fills you with images of Freudian therapy couches and dispassionate therapists, fear not! I’ve found that most of the pop-culture depictions of therapy appointments are pretty far from the mark and in my experience, counseling appointments are a lot more like conversations in a comfortable setting than some sort of scary clinical interview.
It’s important to remember that this is YOUR counseling appointment. No one else knows your experience in life better than you do and no one else has lived the life you have. This means that your reasons for visiting the Counseling Center and the things you need to get out of the appointment will be unique to you. Your therapist is there to help you accomplish your goals.
Initial appointments at the Counseling Center are 90 minutes long and are an opportunity to talk confidentially with a counselor about your immediate concerns. Your counselor will talk with you about some of the reasons you scheduled the appointment and will work with you to evaluate what services and campus resources will be most helpful for you. Some students find that this initial appointment is sufficient to resolve the immediate concern, while others require ongoing support.
What Comes Next
What comes next is completely unique to you and your needs. You will work with your counselor to determine the best next step for you. If you and your counselor feel that you would benefit from more counseling sessions and you’d like to continue to see the same counselor, you can make an appointment in person at the end of your first session.
In addition to scheduling a follow-up appointment, my counselor was also able to connect me with McKinley Health Center to schedule an appointment with a psychiatrist before I’d even left her office. This saved me time and anxiety and meant that everyone involved in my mental health care was on the same page to give me the best treatment possible.
Another great option my counselor suggested to me was to join one of the group therapy options run by the Counseling Center. You can talk to your counselor about those options and learn more about them online.
I hope that this post has helped to demystify the process of making and keeping your first appointment with the university Counseling Center. If you have any questions about the process or would like to learn more, check out the Counseling Center website.
*Ph.D. candidates suffer from anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation at astonishingly high rates.
Caitlin Brooks is a PhD student in Recreation, Sport, and Tourism. Her research focuses on the creation of communities of meaning in liminal leisure spaces and her dissertation explores marriage practices at Burning Man. In her free time, you can find her traveling, cooking, and exploring with her handsome pug, Torbin.