Counseling center helps students find their way

February 23, 2004

While an increasing number of students come to the University with serious personal problems, they also have a healthy attitude about seeking psychological services, according to the director of Penn State's Center for Counseling and Psychological Services.

"The increase in the number of students seeking psychological services has been dramatic, nearly doubling in the last 20 years," said Dennis Heitzmann. "Students today don't hesitate to seek help since there is not the stigma attached to psychological services that there was in earlier generations.

"Penn State has followed a national trend of students presenting themselves with increasingly serious problems and disturbances. The higher expectations placed upon young people in our society has increased the pressure to succeed. For many, it becomes an overly scheduled, intensive and competitive experience. There also are the pressures of availability of substances and, for many, there also is the disintegration of the family.

"But University centers such as CAPS are much better at identifying and treating students in need. Today, it is far more likely that, if students are in need of help, they will be identified and referred for treatment."

The Center for Counseling and Psychological Services is located in Ritenour Building on the University Park campus. Its primary mission is to provide help, service and assistance to a broad range of University students with personal concerns or emotional difficulties. Personal concerns run the gamut from relatively minor issues such as homesickness, adjustment to the University and roommate problems to serious psychological and psychiatric disturbances.

With 13 senior staff members and a full-time equivalent staff of 11 graduate students and interns, the center provides formal therapeutic service to more than 2,000 students annually in one-on-one counseling, group therapy and crisis intervention. Offering more than 50 structured or process therapy groups throughout the year, it is arguably the largest group-therapy program in the country. The center also reaches additional students through structured psychoeducational programs, and discussions and educational programs offered in the HUB series and other venues.

One program, supported by contributions from alumni and offered several times during the academic year, is designed to sensitize and train faculty and staff members in their roles as conduits for students in distress.

"The program is important," Heitzmann said, "because we rely on gatekeepers in the community to identify students and refer them to our services. Faculty and staff see students daily and are in key positions. This program gives them the skills and confidence to identify problems and make the proper referrals."

Heitzmann, who has served as CAPS director since 1984, was honored last fall by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD) with its Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding service to AUCCCD and exemplary leadership in the field of college and university counseling centers. Nominators cited his positive influence on the work of counseling centers and that he brings "a sense of professional integrity and high ethical standards to his work that help establish high standards for others."

A graduate of Northern Illinois University, he received a master's degree in counseling psychology from DePaul University and doctorate in counseling psychology from the University of Texas. Before joining the University staff, he served as director of the Center for Student Development at the University of Memphis.

He said Penn State has been providing some form of psychological/psychiatric services since the mid-1930s. While today's students have a wide range of concerns, he said that most are seen in the generic categories of depression and anxiety.

"Today, we are more fine-tuned in our ability to diagnose clients who come to our center," he noted. "There are some situations in which there are entrenched personality disorders that typically require a lot of long-term treatment. But, for the most part, the overwhelming majority of students we serve have conditions that are treatable with short-term counseling and, in some select cases, medication.

"Our center psychologists, social workers, psychiatric providers and counselors continue to be impressed by the capacity and ability of our students to work through their issues with help and to reach and maintain a higher level of functioning. Students are at a very malleable phase of their development. A well-timed intervention can result in some amazing transformation in the lives of the students with whom we work. We all believe in the capacity of our students to make important things happen in their lives."

According to Heitzmann, who also is affiliate professor in the clinical and counseling psychology programs, the need for centers like CAPS will continue on university campuses.

"Seeking psychological services continues to be an acceptable option for this generation and future generations of students," he said. "We know that for thousands of students their lives as students at this University and as citizens in this community have been enhanced by the self-understanding and problem-solving that follows from the services they have received here. In light of the current conditions in society, there always will be a need for the services we offer."

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 20, 2009