Navigating Support: An Evaluation of NTID’s Counseling Services
by Papa K Sanaah-Faried | published Jan. 3rd, 2024
The untimely loss of RIT/NTID student Michael Altieri serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of comprehensive mental health services, particularly for the deaf and hard-of-hearing (HoH) population at RIT. Altieri’s passing, along with past tragedies, underscores the devastating effects of insufficient support networks and isolation on campus. Beyond that, it necessitates a reevaluation of the resources RIT provides for deaf and HoH students.
COMMON MENTAL HEALTH CHALLENGES
Deaf and HoH students encounter unique mental health challenges that exacerbate the feelings of emotional imbalance typically associated with college life.
A prominent stressor is language deprivation, or the inability to acquire language proficiency due to a lack of exposure in youth. Mary Karol Matchett, the assistant vice president for Student and Academic Services (SAS) at NTID, noted how most deaf youth are born to hearing parents, creating a barrier where parents cannot communicate with their children.
“90% of deaf and hard-of-hearing students have hearing families. Not all of the family members sign ... they relate in a hearing way,” signed Matchett.
Because many hearing families do not learn to communicate with their deaf and HoH children, students experience loneliness, isolation and are left out of familial conversations. This is fittingly dubbed the Dinner Table Syndrome. This produces feelings of frustration and anger among Deaf youth and limits their ability to experience incidental learning — unintentional learning that occurs from doing everyday activities.
“When you miss things like the music, the radio in the car, the discussions in the hallway, it’s very stressful and frustrating. Some students come here with bitterness and anger and frustration that is already built,” noted Matchett.
In addition to some stressors at home, coming to college comes with the universal challenge of navigating independence. For deaf and HoH students that come to RIT, this can be an even stiffer transition.
Vicki Liggera, the director of NTID Counseling and Academic Advising Services (CAAS), emphasized how RIT’s size and the change in environment for incoming students present challenges related to independence and identity.
“You know these students are coming through K-12 schools where they possibly already had a support system,” Liggera signed. “When they come here to NTID, it’s a big college. They’re trying to navigate their independence and their identities simultaneously, and so they have to start to develop their own support system ... and that’s a lot for students to take on.”
“It’s a big college. [Incoming students are] trying to navigate their independence and their identities simultaneously, and so they have to start to develop their own support system … and that’s a lot for students to take on.”
SUPPORT FOR THE DEAF AND HOH COMMUNITY: THE RIT & NTID RESPONSE
Recognizing the influence of academics and transition on stress, NTID CAAS offers transitional counselors to support students.
“Whatever issues may arise with that transition, whether it be family situations to roommate problems to financial concerns, we cover all of that realm of counseling,” signed Liggera.
However, when personal issues intersect with mental health struggles, Liggera’s department defers cases to Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS) at RIT.
“A student is essentially the driver for our meetings we have with them and we do try to support that as much as possible. When it does become more mental health heavy, that’s when we do the referral to CaPS,” Liggera noted.
Once the referral process to CaPS is initiated, a triage process is set in motion, where CaPS works with SAS to pair a student with a therapist based on their communication preferences.
SAS Assistant Vice President Mary Karol Matchett identified how the communication preferences of a deaf or HoH student can lead to different healthcare providers treating students.
“More than 50% of deaf and hard-of-hearing students rely on lip reading and speaking, meaning they’re oral,” noted Mary Karol Matchett. “They prefer to have a hearing counselor. We’re able to work with the RIT counseling group to include them there.”
For the subset of deaf and HoH students that use signed English or ASL, they communicate with either the lone NTID therapist or the one professional in CaPS that is fluent in sign language.
The relatively limited set of mental health providers for deaf and HoH students using signed English or ASL raises important questions: why are there so few signing professionals for such a large school, and how can the university improve outcomes for signing students?
ISSUES WITH THE STATUS QUO
The insufficient number of signing counselors is not a unique problem at RIT. Nationwide, there are a lack of licensed professionals that can sign in clinical practice.
Gallaudet University, another premier institution for deaf and HoH students, acknowledged a similar issue with their Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). Despite having 10 clinical staff for their 1300 students, they still experience waiting lists in part due to a lack of accompanying signing professionals.
To tackle this issue, Doris Zelaya, the assistant director of Gallaudet CAPS, noted how Gallaudet offers training for graduate students interested in clinical practice.
“We also recognize that we need ongoing signing therapists in the field, and that’s going to be an ongoing need,” stated Zelaya. “That's why we have that training program.”
To address these shortcomings, NTID is actively seeking another mental health therapist adept in code-switching, allowing them to navigate the different ways deaf and HoH students communicate.
“I am working on hiring a second mental health therapist right now,” claimed Matchett. “The good news is that we do have a good number of qualified candidates. That should fill in a second or maybe a third position.”
Furthermore, RIT and Gallaudet University have established a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for the upcoming academic year to exchange clinical staff.
Lauri Rush, the director of CAPS at Gallaudet, highlighted the importance of setting up this connection between RIT and NTID.
“This type of MOU is something that we’re gonna work on this year to set up between NTID and Gallaudet, because there’s not a lot of us therapists out there that work with deaf and hard-of-hearing people,” noted Rush.
“This type of MOU is something that we’re gonna work on this year to set up between NTID and Gallaudet, because there’s not a lot of us therapists out there that work with deaf and hard-of-hearing people.”
As of this past spring, NTID has also partnered with the Deaf Wellness Center at the University of Rochester to provide more counselors when the need arises.
To improve the resources available for students, NTID administration emphasizes the importance of student input, suggesting that everyone fill out the NTID Service Rating System survey.
“Anyone can contact me with any concerns or any questions,” signed Matchett, seeking direct input from students. She also encourages students to reach out to SAS.
Steps have been taken to address the challenges deaf and HoH students face here at RIT. However, with the low number of ASL-versed counselors and professionals from deaf and HoH backgrounds, it is evident that this is an ongoing journey. Moving forward, RIT must recognize these challenges and act accordingly to ensure equal access to mental health resources on campus, regardless of hearing status.