Q&A: Jay Darr on the future of Pitt’s Counseling Center


Allison Hansen | Staff Photographer

Counseling Center Director Jay Darr at the “Mental Health Mixer and Town Hall” in March.

By Erica Guthrie, Senior Staff Writer

Since he began the job in mid-February, Pitt’s newest Counseling Center Director Jay Darr said he’s spent his time talking with his staff and going on a “listening tour” around campus to hear what students are saying about the center.

Students have been vocal about their issues with the Counseling Center, and Darr said he’s already worked with his staff to make some changes. For instance, the sometimes-long screening process students have encountered when they walk into the Counseling Center has been replaced with a new system that allows them to meet with a clinician and create a care plan on an initial visit to the center. But other issues — like the fact that the Counseling Center sometimes refers students to care elsewhere, which can be difficult to pay for — may be trickier to solve.

Most recently, Darr was employed as the clinical liaison at the University of North Texas. A veteran of the U.S. Army, he has also worked as the CEO of a renewable energy company called SDL Citadel, the care manager and senior learning specialist at health insurance company Cigna and the program manager at an NGO in Pittsburgh called Healthy Start, Inc.

Darr spoke to The Pitt News on Monday about changes he wants to see implemented, plans for expansion, and whether or not students are being pushed to group therapy.

TPN: As the new Counseling Center director, what are your priorities?

Jay Darr: I’ve been here for about two months now, and really looked at really learning from my staff, learning [about] the Counseling Center operations, hearing their voices. The main thing is not only hearing the staff’s voices, but also hearing the students’ voices.

Over these last 30 days or so, I’ve been really working with the staff with learning what’s happening, some of the history and taking that information to begin to formulate some plans for the future and also sort of going on a listening tour of sorts with students. That first started with the Town Hall with SGB and RSA. Then I met with SGB leadership, to hear their voices and continuing those meetings with CCLD, organizations here, in the upcoming few days.

So [I’ve been] working with students to hear their voices as well and continuing to hear from administration and also other leadership across the campus and our University community to say, “Okay, so what can we do better?” and to take that information back to inform our planning here in the summer.

TPN: Is there anything specific that people have been bringing up that you think is going to be a major concern or goal you want to work toward?

JD: Well, one thing is the wait-list question, or not being able to access services. (Editor’s note: Currently, students have to wait two to three weeks following a mental health screening and preliminary meeting with a clinician before having another appointment.) One thing our outstanding staff and I did over the course of spring break was really look at that to see what we can do before the end of the semester. What we did [is], I like to call, some “halftime changes,” if you will. Prior to spring break, what students had to do, there was a screening process, and then students were hopefully scheduled for an intake.

That process created a wait list. So what we did is combine those two processes into one so when a student comes in during walk-in hours, they will be able to see a clinician, fill out the papers and work collaboratively with the clinician to see what the best courses of treatment or care is for the student is at that time, based on their needs. That’s one thing we’ve changed here, just over the past couple of weeks, and after spring break we implemented that. I’m pleased to say that we do not have a wait list at this moment.

TPN: There’s a big group therapy initiative being run by the counseling center. A lot of students have mentioned they feel as if they’re being pushed into group therapy. How do you plan on making sure that students’ individual needs are being met?

JD: When we combine into one initial consult, we’re able to sit down and work collaboratively with the students. At the end of that, meeting students’ needs — also looking at clinically, what’s appropriate for the student — we’re able to come up with what we’re calling the Student Success Plan.

So [with] that Student Success Plan, students can do self-help, go to workshops, groups, participate in campus resources such as Panther Wellness … and then looking at group therapy and individual therapy and if need be, referral out to either our psychiatrist, which is in the health center or Wellness Center, [or] some of our community partners here in the greater Pittsburgh area.

Part of that combination of services and care is being connected back to the Wellness Center. So, whether we need students to see some of our medical providers, or take advantage of our acupuncture services that we added there at the Wellness Center. So really, it’s a combination of resources and services and support, because we have a wealth of resources and support here on campus. So it’s just not one thing that fits all.

I think that’s part of the myth, that people are getting pushed to groups. I think it’s definitely a myth in that we want to meet the students needs, and based on our clinical expertise, we’re able to help the students in a collaborative fashion. A student can always come back during our walk-in hours or during their scheduled appointment, and meet with a clinician and say, “Hey, can we talk about adjusting some things?” Or the clinician can say, “Hey, I can see that this is not working for you. Let’s talk about adjusting what’s best for you.”

TPN: We currently have just less than 30,000 students, considering the graduate population as well. From what we saw on the website, there’s around 16 full-time counselors employed at Pitt. Do you have any plans to increase the number of counselors or counseling services to better address the student population, as we have such a large student population?

JD: The current staff, including myself, is 20 clinicians that are licensed professional counselors, psychologists and social workers. We also have four doctoral psychology interns and we also have three practicum students. That takes us up to around 27 clinicians that are available for students.

Of course, we’re looking at some ways to expand, and expansion I’m looking at in terms of two ways. One, of course, diversity of our staff. At Student Affairs, we’re definitely committed to enhancing diversity of our counseling staff and are willing to meet that challenge, through not only looking at our trainees, but also positions that will be coming in the future. And some of those positions may be embedding counselors in housing and other locations throughout the campus.

We’re also looking at how we can continue to partner with others throughout the University, particularly through outreach, being visible. One of those efforts that we’re doing right now is “Let’s Talk” being in spaces such as the Union and other locations throughout the campus.

The other expansion piece is also looking at additional outreach activities and workshops and some of those include our suicide prevention gatekeeper training. (Editor’s note: Gatekeeper Training for Suicide Prevention is an educational program designed to teach people, or “gatekeepers,” the warning signs of a suicide crisis and how to respond.)

So really, the expansion is threefold — one is increasing the diversity of our staff and trainees, second is really looking at through that expansion and increasing that diversity, having clinicians at various programs and embedded programming. And then third is, of course, being more out on campus, being outside of Nordenberg Hall and the Wellness Center to provide services and so that students can see us.

TPN: Something else we have heard from other students is concerns about cost. So, for instance, if they have a problem that they’re dealing with or something that leads them to get referred to someone outside of the University, but they might not have the health insurance or money to cover it, has that been something the Counseling Center has been considering how to address, or other options?

JD: That is a challenge. And what we would do is look at that by a case-by-case basis and see what we can do internally, as well as work with our county partners to see what we can do around insurance and other community providers. Insurance or self-pay options or low-cost/no-cost services — that’s all in the works, there’s no guarantee, but we’re willing to look at students by a case-by-case basis.