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Florida counselors in short supply

Since the tragedies at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, more colleges have noticed an increased demand at their mental health counseling centers.

However, the Florida Board of Governors Mental Health Issues Subcommittee has found that Florida’s universities do not have enough counselors to meet this growing demand.

Dr. Dale Hicks, associate director of the USF Counseling Center, said more faculty and friends are calling the center about students, and more students are seeking counseling help for themselves.

“That suggests that there is heightened awareness on everybody’s part in wanting to know how to best handle situations,” Hicks said.

USF has one counselor for every 3,600 students. The Mental Health Issues Subcommittee recommends one for every 1,500 students.

“We are definitely understaffed, but it’s not because of budget cuts,” Hicks said. “Over the years, as USF has grown, the counseling staff has not kept pace with the number of students.”

The subcommittee suggests that Florida universities should put more money into hiring counselors, but USF’s Counseling Center must contend with the declining University budget.

“Everyone is aware of this situation and would like to do something, but it’s not clear yet with all the budget cuts that much can be done at this point,” Hicks said.

To alleviate the situation, the University has provided the Counseling Center with funding to temporarily hire part-time professionals to help with caseloads. The center has also hired a licensed psychologist and social workers to see clients.

“The University is sympathetic about it, and their commitment to us is that as soon as the funding is available to have permanent staff, we’ll do it,” Hicks said.

The hiring of temporary staff has helped cut the average waiting time for appointments at the center from three to four weeks in 2007 to about one week since the spring.

The understaffing of counseling centers is a statewide phenomenon. Hicks said that, nationwide, the average number of students per counselor is 1,900 to one.

As universities and colleges continue to grow, so does the demand for these services. When this growing trend is coupled with two university massacres, that demand increases even more.

“The tragedies have underscored the need for accessible, available and effective mental health services on university campuses,” said Dr. Maria Goodwin, director of the Psychological Services Center in the Department of Psychology at USF.

Hicks said USF’s center primarily serves short-term cases. If a student is in an emergency situation and needs more extensive counseling, he or she may be referred to local community counseling centers.

Goodwin said college students are more likely to seek counseling because of the stressful challenges and changes experienced in the college environment.

“I think that creating an atmosphere where students have a sense of support and belonging increases the likelihood that they seek services,” Goodwin said. “I would like to see mental health resources considered as valuable and critical to student well-being and development, as are other services.”