University Demand For Counselors Continues

May 4, 2017

Florida's universities call it a troubling trend. The need for mental health counseling services among students has gone up nearly 50 percent over the past five years.

Almost 25,000 students sought mental health services last year, but on some campuses, they may have to wait weeks for help.  There just aren't enough counselors to go around.

The Board of Governors, which oversees the state's universities,asked for help, but this year no money has been set aside.  

With that money, schools could hire more people to work at the counseling centers, like the one at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

That's where Wainella Isaacs went for help two semesters into her graduate degree. The engineering coursework was overwhelming, her research assistant job was demanding and she was still adapting to the culture shock of moving from Trinidad to the United States.

Two years later, she said she doesn't know where she'd be without her counselor:

"Counseling provides me the structure to sift through some of the parts I probably don't understand for myself. So then I create an action plan and then there's the added step of accountability where when I come back at my next meeting it’s like, ‘OK, so how did we do?’ So I feel kind of good like, a little kid in school gets a little star saying, yes, I did what I was supposed to do, not just because it's what the teacher told me to do, but because I recognize it's in my best interest.”

Public health student Brian Leenknecht is balancing two jobs, classes and multiple student organizations. He said the counseling center helped him find balance, and went beyond his campus life to his home life, where Leenknecht has better learned to cope with his mother’s schizophrenia.

“I cannot thank them enough for how they kind of shape different areas of my life,” Leenknecht said. “My grades have improved. My life has improved.”

Isaacs and Leenknecht are two of more than 3,200 students at USF who saw a counselor just this school year. That's a small fraction of the 35,000 students who attend school on the Tampa campus. But it's still enough to overwhelm the 19 counselors and handful of trainees and part-time staff. The reality is, students in crisis can get in that same day, but others sometimes wait up to two weeks.

Credit State University System of Florida Board of Governors

That's the situation at all but three public universities in Florida today, according to the International Association of Counseling Services. They recommend one counselor for every 1,000 to 1,500 students.

Heidi Petracco, the interim co-director at the USF Counseling Center, said they've tried to keep up by extending their hours, offering group therapy sessions - and even encouraging online counseling.

“So this is actually a way for us to be able to expand the reach of services that we offer that is really up and coming in the field regardless of what our budgetary limitations are at this moment of time,” Petracco said.

The request for $14.5 million by the Board of Governors is not arbitrary. Petracco said helping students through issues like depression, anxiety, and stress has been shown in studies to improve grades and graduation rates -- and those are the measures universities are judged by.

"So it's important from a university standpoint to be sort of invested in the mental health and well-being of the student body to help them excel at that next level,” Petracco said.

New College of Florida in Sarasota is one of the three universities that meet the counselor-to-student ratio recommendation. Nicole Archer, the interim director of their counseling center, said students there who have received help from a counselor report being better equipped for the real world.

"One of the questions we ask is, 'Do you feel like our services helped you to stay in school?' And about 73 percent said that, yes, our services did help them with that. And about 88 percent said that they felt better prepared to handle future challenges,” Archer said.

Lawmakers in Tallahassee don't diminish the value of college counseling centers. The debate -- for them -- is whether lawmakers should dictate money be used specifically for mental health services.

Several say if mental health is a priority, then universities could use the general pool of money from the state to hire counselors.

Back at USF in Tampa, Petracco said they're trying to look at the bigger picture beyond the number of counselors they could add in the coming year.

"How do we begin to shift the culture of that we value mental health on campus so that students begin paying attention to that very early?” Petracco asked.

For example, she said more prevention and outreach could help reduce the number of students lining up at their door.