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Student Health Center gets long-awaited approval for full-time psychiatrists

The Student Health Center Psychiatry Clinic is expected to hire a chief psychiatrist later this month, ending the university’s long stretch without a full-time campus-based physician at the clinic.

The chief psychiatrist opening was published online on Dec. 17 after a months-long effort by students and Student Health Center staff, and the accompanying staff psychiatrist position opened up Jan. 18.

“We are keenly aware that there is an ever-increasing demand for mental health services among college students, especially at a campus of this size within an urban setting,” said Dr. Vanessa Tilney, the executive director of the Student Health Center, in an email. “We have a large and diverse student population and with that comes a good proportion of them needing mental health support during a busy and stressful period in their lives.”

Dr. Tilney said the decision to increase the number of campus-based staff psychiatrists at the Student Health Center came after conversations with university stakeholders, members of the Student Government Association, and health and wellness professionals.

Overall, she said, the addition of the psychiatry positions were made possible through help from executive leadership within the university’s Business Services and Human Resources departments.

While the initial hiring process will add a chief psychiatrist and staff psychiatrist to the clinic, Dr. Tilney said they have been given the approval to hire a third psychiatrist should there be any future need.

The addition of the chief and staff psychiatrists is expected to decrease wait times for students and appointment availability, which Dr. Tilney said fills up fast.

For some students, the high demand for psychiatry appointments has proven detrimental.

“When I finally got in, the psychiatrist literally told me that I should find a therapist outside of the psychiatry clinic because I couldn’t get in as often as needed,” said former UH student Jennifer Gonzalez. “That’s one of the main reasons I left — I knew I couldn’t get the help I needed at UH.”

Gonzalez said that while access to mental health services at UH played a major role in her difficulties at the university, she hopes the additional psychiatrists on staff will be able to better help students in her position.

“I think that this will help others be able to work on their mental health without having to sacrifice their education,” Gonzalez said. “Before, you basically had to choose one or the other, but this will most likely increase the number of students who will be able to receive the help they need.”

SGA President Cameron Barrett, who worked with Dr. Tilney to advocate for funding for the positions, said the addition to the university’s mental health offerings has been a long time coming.

Barrett said SGA’s participation began when Mariellee Aurelio, a second-year pharmacy student, approached him in August concerning the availability of psychiatry services for students. At the time, the clinic wasn’t able to accept any new patients.

“Just before last fall semester started, I had found out that both psychiatrists at the clinic were leaving, including the one I have been seeing since undergrad,” Aurelio said. “I’ve found that SGA has always been very helpful in mobilizing and advocating for mental health services on campus.”

After hearing the news, Aurelio messaged Barrett her concerns about finding another psychiatrist right away to continue her treatment. In the meantime, she said the Psychiatry Clinic brought in temporary psychiatrists to fill the need.

“I greatly appreciated this as I was able to get refills on medications that I needed to function,” she said. “Still, continuity of care is important for a patient no matter if it is mental or physical health.”

As the clinic worked to permanently fill the vacated staff psychiatrist positions, however, Aurelio said it encountered funding issues. Namely, the university was offering below-average compensation for the positions.

Part of the cause for the pay discrepancy, Barrett said, was a university policy capping the salary for most employees at $175,000. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average psychiatrist in Texas makes more than $209,000 each year — nearly $35,000 above UH’s cap.

Barrett said it was a combined effort with Dr. Tilney and the executive leadership of Human Resources that made securing the extra funding necessary — by bypassing the usual salary cap — to offer a competitive salary to psychiatrists at the clinic.

“It is with recent turnover of psychiatrists in 2018 that we expedited the attention to and development of such positions within the Student Health Center,” Dr. Tilney said.

Aurelio said Dr. Tilney was kind in explaining the circumstances making it difficult to hire more psychiatrists when she initially voiced her concerns and said she appreciated Dr. Tilney’s efforts to keep the Psychiatry Clinic operating steadily regardless of funding.

“Spilling out your darkest thoughts, sharing your worst moments — that takes trust,” Aurelio said. “Furthermore, physicians have different approaches to medication therapy, as I’ve found with my new psychiatrist. With more stable staffing, that familiarity and that continuity of care will persist.”

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