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Report finds USF needs more counselors

After a mentally ill student killed 32 people and then fatally shot himself at Virginia Tech in April 2007, the organization that runs Florida’s public universities decided to assess whether schools could provide adequate mental health counseling. The report determined that USF could not.

The Florida Board of Governors (BOG) Mental Health Issues Subcommittee released a report in February outlining recommendations for improvement of the 11 universities in the State University System.

USF’s ability to treat the mental health of its students is well below the state average, the report stated, and budget cuts may prevent the Counseling Center from hiring more staff.

USF has a ratio of one mental health professional to every 3,500 students, well below the national average and second-lowest in Florida, according to the subcommittee’s report.

To reach the International Association of Counseling Services’ (IACS) recommended ratio of 1 professional per 1,500 students, however, USF would need to hire 22 new psychiatrists, psychologists or social workers – more than any other public university in the state. The report recommended a statewide funding increase to hire more mental health professionals.

Dale Hicks, associate director of USF’s Counseling Center, said that the center received a temporary budget increase to hire more staff following the Virginia Tech tragedy. Permanent funds, however, have not been allocated.

“We were on the cusp of being funded for additional resources when they discovered Florida didn’t have any money,” Hicks said.

No one has told Hicks how much money could be cut from his program in the next fiscal year, if any. Meanwhile, the center is plagued with long wait times as it struggles to service the student population. Some students must wait weeks to see a counselor, Hicks said.

“I think it can discourage some students from coming in the first place, or from coming back,” he said.

Hicks said students who are assessed as a threat to themselves or others get treatment immediately, but the initial assessment is often delayed by the lack of staff.

Michael Hoad, vice president of communications for USF, said despite budget cuts, the Counseling Center may still see an increase in employees.

“Additional mental health counselors are a priority at USF,” he said. “Every meeting I’ve been in, people have said that’s an area we need to increase.”

The subcommittee’s report recommends that counseling centers find additional sources of income. This could include a fee for the services they offer, Hicks said, but that decision has not been made.

“That’s a political issue,” he said. “I don’t know if that will ever happen.”

The report placed an emphasis on preventing mental health issues rather than strictly treating them. Community outreach is a large part of preventing dangerous individuals from inflicting harm on themselves or others, since many students do not voluntarily seek treatment at the center, Hicks said.

“Most of the people who end up creating problems or doing something violent do not wind up at the center,” he said.

The Counseling Center employs public education and marketing programs and works closely with faculty and staff to identify individuals that may need treatment, Hicks said. Since the Virginia Tech shooting, the center has received an increase in calls from concerned family and friends.

“People have already taken the initiative. They are much more aware, and they are much more involved,” he said.

Changes at UPOther recommendations from the BOG subcommittee include creating a more involved campus life, enforcing policies against underage drinking and substance abuse, and creating an Introduction to Mental Health course for undergraduates, which USF does not currently offer, according to the Search-A-Bull database.

The subcommittee report states that campus law enforcement should be integrated into a “crisis management team” that includes school administrators. The report also recommends additional support from the Statewide Crisis Response Team.

Lt. Meg Ross of the University Police Department said UP has not changed its training since the Virginia Tech tragedy, and that it has not received additional support.

“We participate in crisis response and intervention training,” she said. “It has always been a part of our overarching strategy.”

Room for improvementRatio of counselors to students according to BOG Mental Health Issues Subcommittee report

1 to 3,500: average at USF

1 to 2,644: average ratio in Florida

1 to 1,961: national average1

1 to 1,500: ratio recommended by the IACS

1. According to a 2007 national survey of counseling center directors