Counseling Center reaching out to students ‘where they are’


The University Counseling Center is focusing on meeting the students where they are to help make Pitt’s mental health resources more accessible.

Jay Darr, Counseling Center director, joined Pitt in February, filling a position that had been vacant since 2017. Darr said the center has been focused on branching out beyond the Nordenberg Hall Wellness Center into residence halls, the student union, and other common areas on campus to increase student access to mental health services.

Jay Darr in front of screenDarr, an Army veteran and Pittsburgh native, most recently was the clinical liaison and coordinator at the University of North Texas in Denton. “Being here at the counseling center, just realizing the outstanding staff that we have, has really been helpful in making that transition back in Pittsburgh,” he said.

The outreach approach came about after Darr spent his first few months on the job gathering feedback on the counseling center.

One of the main concerns Darr heard was that the center had a lengthy waitlist that presented a significant barrier to its services and clinicians.

So, one of his first goals was to reduce it. By the end of the spring 2019 semester, he and counseling center achieved that goal through streamlining paperwork to get students connected to resources earlier.

“We know the counseling center has had some challenges in the past. But I think we're poised now to really move forward and begin to really adjust some of the things around increasing our access to clinicians around campus, and also looking at how to work smarter around managing the demand, and continue to encourage students to seek help,” Darr said. “I think it's the responsibility of all of us here at the University of Pittsburgh to participate in the wellness of students.”

Pitt is not the only university seeing an increased demand for mental health services. A report released in November 2018 by the American Psychological Association found that from 2007 to 2017, the percentage of college students receiving a mental health diagnosis increased from 22 percent to 36 percent and treatment for mental illnesses increased from 19 percent to 34 percent.

These increases, among “probably hundreds of variables,” Darr said, are due to mental health issues being destigmatized in U.S. society, encouraging more people to seek help.

Darr said he follows a philosophy of “meeting the students where they are,” instead of only asking them to come directly to the center for help. To achieve that, he has implemented

several new resources that focus on making mental health services more accessible to the Pitt community.

Some of these outreach services include the new “Let’s Talk” sessions, which consist of informal workshops, groups, individual counseling, group counseling and couples’ therapy. The program had a soft launch in the spring semester at the William Pitt Union and will make its way to residence halls and the Trees Hall rec center.

Darr also is planning to hire a new clinician this fall who will be embedded in a residence hall on Pitt’s Oakland campus. The Pitt News reported this week that there would be counselors in Towers Lobby, Sutherland Hall and Lothrop Hall starting in October. The program will be funded in part by the student fee hikes approved by the Board of Trustees in May.

Another service primed to launch in the fall is “Step Care,” where the counseling center offers students a variety of self-help resources — a set of online tools for managing anxiety, depression, relationship communication and substance use concerns and promoting mindfulness.

And the new Thriving Campus program will get students connected with clinicians throughout the Pittsburgh community who have signed up with the center and have been vetted.

Darr and counseling center staff also hope Pitt faculty and staff help spread mental health awareness throughout the University. Empathy, he said, is the best tool for faculty and staff to use when interacting with students who may struggle with mental health issues.

“Don't forget that you're a human being yourself,” Darr said. “Just that human connection, that genuineness, that being authentic with a student in that moment makes a difference.”

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905.


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