Paul Hoffman, PhD, has been named the new Director of Mental Health & Counseling at Yale Health.
He succeeds Lorraine Siggins, MD, who retired last year after three decades as director. Hoffman served for five months as Interim Director before being appointed to the position full time in February. He previously worked as Associate Chief for Clinical Affairs.
“We have a strong continual commitment to being a training and educational site for the psychiatry department,” Hoffman said. “We’ve always been an excellent training site and our commitment remains to that, but also to thinking of how to improve our training and to match the needs and interests of the residents and trainees who come through.”
Hoffman first arrived at Yale after completing both undergraduate and graduate programs at the University of Tennessee. His internship — through the Department of Psychiatry — and postdoc work, he said, played a vital role in his career path.
“I really loved my time in the internship program and I really valued the psychiatry department,” he said. “It was really my first significant exposure to psychiatry and psychiatric hospitals … and my first interaction with Yale.”
Hoffman soon came to discover a love for working with students.
“It was a rewarding experience to work with this population, this age of student. There’s a level of vibrancy and identity development. They’re always running a mile a minute and it sort of keeps you on your toes to keep up with them, so I really loved the job here and really loved working with students.”
Hoffman said the clinic has experienced a 70% increase in student demand for mental health services over the last five years, with double-digit increases in patients in four out of the last five years. As a result, Hoffman immediately began searching for ways to improve access and outreach when he began as Interim Director last fall.
The clinic began providing walk-in hours for initial evaluations, to give patients an option to not have to wait for an intake appointment. They also began streamlining the triage system and assignments to improve wait times, in addition to numerous other small, more administrative changes.
Hoffman acknowledged that there are both good and bad potential drivers behind the recent national surge of college students seeking mental health treatment.
“I think awareness has increased, I think stigma has decreased, I think people are much more open about talking about their mental health issues than they ever have before, and I think when people talk about things … it sort of starts to normalize and starts to become part of the conversation,” he said.
However, he said, “I do think most of the evidence suggests that people are experiencing more distress than they were previously. What we’re seeing is our numbers for anxiety and depression are going up and that’s the population of people who are already coming for treatment. … The same people who were here are now getting diagnosed with more significant mental health issues.”
Hoffman also cited increased use of technology and more limited face-to-face interactions with peers as a possible contributing factor.
“I think we’re kind of seeing a perfect storm of a lot of different issues, so it is interesting to think about how do we keep up, how do we modernize to meet people’s needs, and how do we not just give a solution that seems like it’s going to be a good solution … but may, in some ways, replicate some of the problems … that may be part of the issue in the first place.”
“It’s going to take a while I think for the mental health field to catch up to the trends and discover what the best ways of approaching mental health issues when it’s, in some ways, becoming fairly normative for people to be talking about their mental health issues,” he added.
Hoffman said part of his vision moving forward includes addressing some of these generational differences in how people are approaching mental health, such as placing a greater emphasis on immediacy versus longevity of treatment, and balancing increased access and continuity of care.
He also said he hopes to increase outreach efforts to become more integrated in the community. He also acknowledged the clinic will need to add more staff to meet the continued increase in patients.
“Mental health issues in college students are a campus-wide issue and we are only one of the entities that can affect it,” he said. “We’re downstream of many of the issues, and we catch things when they come into us, but there are a lot of mental health issues that are never brought to us. There are a lot of things that are cultural and systemic and bigger picture that just being a treatment clinic you can’t solve, but it’s good to be involved in the broader discussion about it.”