Warning: This story contains references to suicide. If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts or know someone who is, call 988.
In the wake of two student suicides in 2018, Savannah College of Art and Design launched a program that provides 12 free counseling sessions per academic year for students struggling with mental health issues.
The college, which in 2022 reported approximately $1 billion in assets, lauds its counseling program on its website as a safe and confidential source for comprehensive care and support. Its staffing and counseling services reflect recommendations set by the association that accredits counseling programs. According to a promotional video about its counseling service, SCAD says it has 13 counselors. Information from its marketing department suggests 20 mental health professionals are available.
Yet these statistics suggest that SCAD’s counseling services fall behind other top art schools in a key metric: the ratio of students to counselors, a measurement that influences how frequently a student can access clinical therapy and the capacity of a school to help those experiencing severe symptoms at a time when American college students are dealing with more mental health crises than earlier generations.
At SCAD, the ratio is approximately one counselor per 820 students at a minimum, to approximately 1,262 students, at a maximum, based on the Fall 2022 enrollment of 16,414 students reported to the Department of Education. Meanwhile, Rhode Island School of Design, which had 2,620 students enrolled last fall has approximately one counselor per 524 students, and the Pratt Institute, which had 5,494 students has approximately one counselor per 499 students.
The body which sets recommended standards, the International Accreditation of Counseling Services (IACS), says ratios should be based on full-time clinical staff, rather than trainees or masters- or doctoral-level students. The group says educational facilities should “make every effort” to maintain staffing levels of at least one professional therapist (excluding trainees) for every 1,000-1,500 students.
In a prepared statement, the associate vice president for public relations and marketing said SCAD takes its commitment to student well-being quite seriously. SCAD declined to answer questions about how many of their mental health professionals fit the IACS definition; the school also does not publicize an exact number of registered students. “The university’s topmost priority is to provide a safe and compassionate learning environment for our Bees, exemplified by an array of wellness and care resources,” said J.J. Maxwell, referring to SCAD students. “We provide the resources and personnel necessary to fulfill that calling.”
Yet SCAD’s efforts are still failing some students, according to two dozen current and former students interviewed by The Current about the college’s mental health culture and services. Within that group, 18 criticized the care, service or resources they had received. Among their complaints included at least two students who reported having suicidal ideations and felt SCAD services were not built to treat those at serious risk; six students who said long waiting times to see counselors adversely affected them; three students who said their SCAD counselors referred them to service providers outside of SCAD requiring separate insurance or out of pocket expenses. One student said she chose not to seek services with SCAD because there were no counselors of color.
This dissatisfaction has SCAD students flocking to community mental health resources and straining the limited services available to other residents of Savannah and Chatham County, a two-month investigation by The Current has found.
In February, the Prism Clinic, which is a joint venture between Georgia Southern University and the First City Pride Center offering behavioral and mental health services, had a meeting with SCAD officials about the escalating volume of counseling requests from SCAD students, according to Donovan Edward, the vice chair of First City.
First City Pride, Savannah’s umbrella group serving the LGBTQ+ community across the region, relies on donors for its programs. Prism helped 79 clients last year via a grant-funded program, and their waitlist for services is more than 20 people, according to Edward.
Edward said SCAD officials who participated on the virtual call were receptive to making change, but he did not know of a timeline. SCAD did not respond to questions The Current asked about the meeting. The college earlier this year launched a new platform that includes information about counseling and wellness resources, according to Maxwell.
Vira Salzburn, the Program Director at Chatham County Safety Net Planning Council, said that in 2022 a person within SCAD’s social services reached out to her for resources about suicide awareness for a student event. Salzburn’s organization offers workshops and training about suicide awareness as well as mindfulness training to Chatham County public schools and the Savannah campus of Georgia Southern University. SCAD has no formal relationship with her organization.
A year earlier, Salzburn had helped facilitate a suicide intervention over the phone for a SCAD student. That student’s friends connected Salzburn, instead of the college’s support system, for an initial chat with the at-risk person. Salzburn then followed up with two additional interventions.
“SCAD is a private school. They are pretty tight on the policies and procedures. And they really don’t, I think, want people from the outside to be involved in what’s happening on the inside, which is unfortunate,” said Salzburn, a community educator and public speaker on suicide prevention.
Maxwell said that the SCAD Office of Mental Health provides 24/7 crisis support services and immediate suicide prevention services for all locations.
Challenges mount for students
A common stereotype about artists paints them as moody or eclectic.
Johns Hopkins University psychiatry professor Kay Redfield Jamison is among the academic professionals who believe that there is strong evidence that mood disorders, such as depression and bipolarism, are more prevalent among artists and writers than in the general population. In a 2023 interview, Jamison told The Getty Conservation Research Foundation Museum that the “mad genius” trope has endured “possibly because there’s a real element of truth in it.”
SCAD, which brands itself as the University for Creative Careers, is among the largest private art schools in the country, with approximately 15,000 students. SCAD Savannah is the largest campus.
The workload for SCAD students can be punishing, according to most of the students who spoke to The Current. Generally, SCAD undergraduate students enroll in three classes a quarter, where they work on tight deadlines designed to prepare them for professional work in creative industries. The school’s strict absence policy permits no excused absences, and students automatically fail a course if they acquire over four absences.
In October 2018, after two students committed suicide and a third died, Elizabeth Thanos, who was a student at the time, started a petition to pressure SCAD to revamp its counseling and mental health facilities.
The petition calls for better mental health services at the school, more counselors, mandatory training on how to spot those at risk of suicide, and an amendment to the absence policy.
“Students deserve to feel safe, and feel heard, and know that the place they are spending up to four years or more of their lives is protecting them. I don’t think I was fortunate enough to say that I felt protected while I was there,” said Thanos, who graduated in 2020. The petition now has more than 19,000 signatures.
Before 2018, some students in need of counseling described SCAD’s services as inadequate. One such student who was struggling with suicidal thoughts called SCAD’s counseling center and emphasized a desperation for help. The center, however, said it would take more than a week to schedule an appointment.
In 2019, SCAD launched a new mental health program called Bee Well, which Maxwell said came in response to increased enrollment and “the larger national conversation about holistic healthcare.”
On SCAD’s website the department says it has counseling, student support services, and a 24/7 crisis hotline, costs of which are included in students’ tuition. The website also says they offer individual and group counseling opportunities and workshops.
The college also offers mental health services via an online app LiveHealth. The Bee Well website states therapy scheduled through the app is free. LiveHealth’s own website describes therapy as costing a minimum of $80 per session for regular clients.
A promotional video on SCAD’s YouTube channel says that the counseling service has 13 professional counselors. The information on the Bee Well website suggests multiple levels of experience among the staff. “With a wide network of counselors, including doctoral- and master’s-level counselors and graduate-level clinical interns, the SCAD office of counseling and student support services addresses concerns and emergencies, and helps students develop a personal plan to overcome challenges,” the website says.
Maxwell told The Current that the student counseling and support services department employs “a culturally and ethnically diverse staff of more than 20 mental health professionals, including three doctoral-level supervisors.” He did not respond to questions about the level of education, professional qualifications or licenses of the staff.
Two students who spoke to The Current reported positive experiences with Bee Well counselors. One, however, was forced to end the counseling sessions during the Covid-19 pandemic. Several other students were more critical, saying they felt the staff had not enough experience with the issues they were facing.
Alexis Broome, a SCAD student from 2018 to 2022, said Bee Well counselors failed in alleviating her depression during her sophomore year. Broome says a counselor suggested she lose weight and she chose not to return after her initial appointment. Broome found a different counselor in the Savannah area.
“I took the opportunity to fully see what SCAD’s resources were like,” she said. “Their Bee Well program unfortunately didn’t work for me.”
Death data hard to verify
The Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) says that suicide is one of the leading causes of death for college students in America. According to a 2013 study, the leading cause of death for college students is accidents, including vehicular and non-traffic deaths, followed by suicide.
It’s unclear how America’s mental health epidemic is affecting the area’s suicide rate.
According to data published by the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, which began collection in July 2022, Chatham County residents have made over 4,100 calls in crisis. This is about 3% of the total calls from Georgians where 988 were able to report a home county. That’s roughly in line with Chatham’s share of the state’s population.
But Chatham County has limited accessible data about suicides. Records prior to 2021 have not been digitized. Statistics between January 2021-June 2023 show 61 suicides in the coronor’s digital system. However, more than 600 deaths have been marked in the coroner’s system with “unknown” manner of death and an approximate 150 others whose manner of death is “pending.”
No law requires Georgia higher education facilities to report suicides on their campus. SCAD declined to comment about the topic.
University system care comparable
Although they charge less tuition than SCAD, local campuses within the University System of Georgia offer similar mental health services as the private nonprofit college.
Georgia’s University System, including Savannah State University and Georgia Southern University, launched a partnership with Christie Campus at the end of 2020 to provide more comprehensive mental health care to its over 340,000 students. The partnership provides free telehealth and in-person treatment sessions, delivered domestically and internationally, and Personal Student Navigators who assist with referrals to outside counselors.
The counseling center at Georgia Southern’s Armstrong Campus is accredited via the IACS, the body that sets recommendations for counseling staff to student ratios. With approximately 4,621 students and 4 licensed counselors, Armstong’s ratio is one counselor per 1,155 students. Students are allowed 16 counseling sessions per year.
SCAD’s counseling services are not listed in the IACS database.
Savannah Technical College, a public 2-year, community college with roughly 3,558 students, doesn’t offer counseling on site, but due to a donation, they do offer counseling through a third-party.
Few SCAD students contacted by The Current felt comfortable speaking on the record about their health issues, citing the stigma of mental health.
Some of these students say they use services Shrink Savannah, Healing Solutions or counselors found through their own private insurance. Some said that SCAD counselors referred them for therapy off campus, but the students couldn’t afford those services. Still others are using free resources that the area’s high-school students and low-income residents rely on, such as those offered by First City Pride and Prism.
Current student Elliot Schertz said they injured both hands while studying at SCAD and as a result had to change their major. The injury impacted their mental health.
Prior to their injury, Schertz attended a counseling session at Bee Well about a roommate issue.
Schertz felt their SCAD counselor didn’t take their feelings seriously. “Personally, I don’t think I would really recommend those services to anyone,” they said. Due to this, Schertz decided to seek outside mental health care when their injury affected their mental health.
Schertz began at SCAD in 2019, said they would have graduated this year, but due to the major switch and the pandemic, is now only halfway through their degree program.
Kate Lux, who graduated from SCAD in 2021, said that she brought concerns to SCAD administrators before the campus shutdown during the Covid-19 pandemic about the affects the strict absence policies has on students with disabilities and physical or mental health issues.
“I know a lot of people who were depressed, a lot of people who were anxious, just a lot of people who struggled. It’s not fair that these policies don’t account for literal injuries and if someone’s having a mental health crisis,” said Lux.
- Emergency Police: 911
- NAMI National HelpLine:(800) 950-6264
- The Georgia Crisis and Access Line: 1-800-715-4225.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255
- 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: Call 988
- Peer Support “Warm Line”: (888) 945-1414 The Georgia Mental Health consumer-directed “warm line” for anyone struggling with mental health issues, 24 hours a day.
- First City Pride Center: An inclusive advocacy, social, and service organization actively working to meet the needs for safety, empowerment, education, and wellbeing of Greater Savannah’s LGBTQIA+ community. We envision an inclusive community where every person has safety, acceptance, and equal rights under the law.
- Prism Clinic: Partnering with Georgia State University and FCPC, the Prism Clinic offers counseling services to the LGBTQIA+ Community and for LGBTQIA+ Community support. In person appointments at the First City Pride Center and telehealth available. For in-person services you must reside in Screven, Bulloch, Effingham, Candler, Evans, Long, Mcintosh, Liberty, Bryan, Chatham, or Glynn County. Services are at no cost to you for the first 5 visits, then offered at $5 per visit for continued appointments. email@example.com (912) 478-1685
- Chatham County Safety Net Planning Council
- Prevent Suicide Today: A community-based program in Chatham County, Georgia, managed by the Chatham County Safety Net Planning Council and Gateway Community Service Board. We work with a dedicated and compassionate team of community partners and suicide intervention trainers to raise awareness that suicide is preventable and to equip community members with the suicide prevention and intervention skills.
- ASIST: Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) is a two-day interactive workshop in suicide first aid. Participants learn to carry out life-saving interventions for people with thoughts of suicide.
- SafeTALK: SafeTALK is a half-day alertness training that prepares anyone 15 or older, regardless of prior experience or training, to become a suicide-alert helper. Participants learn to recognize warning signs and take action by connecting people to life-saving intervention resources.
- SuicideTALK: A 30-90 minute awareness-raising discussion of suicide, led by an ASIST trainer and offered free to any Chatham County organization. Participants learn to remove stigma by speaking openly and honestly about suicide.
- Q.P.R. (Question, Persuade, Refer) Gatekeeper Training: A 60-minute evidence-based course in suicide prevention led by a registered QPR instructor. Participants learn how to recognize early signs of a suicide crisis and take the first steps toward prevention.
- Gateway Community Service Board: a public community-based organization serving eight Georgia counties, including Camden, Glynn, McIntosh, Liberty, Chatham, Bryan, Long, and Effingham. Gateway provides comprehensive community services for mental health, substance use disorders, and developmental disorders to its people and communities. No one will be denied access to services due to an inability to pay. Appointments and Information: (866) 557-9955
- HUGS (Heads-Up Guidance Services): A faith-based, non-profit organization, making both professional counseling & vocational guidance available and affordable to all who desire growth & independence. firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: 912-417-4320
- J.C. Lewis Primary Health Care Center: It provides comprehensive primary health care at a discounted price for those who qualify. The center provides all required primary, preventative, enabling health services as well as comprehensive behavioral health services. Phone: 912.495.8887
- Recovery Place, Inc.: A CARF accredited substance abuse and behavioral health treatment provider located in Savannah. They provide a comprehensive array of cost-effective services including: detoxification, individual and family counseling, relapse prevention, dual diagnosis treatment, evening and morning outpatient programs, day treatment, and a residential program. Phone: (912) 504-1179