Counseling Center balances services with limited funding

When Maria Lopez Fernandez was a sophomore, her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer.

Fernandez noticed every aspect of her life suffering, from grades to social life. She began participating in the Counseling Centers consultation services during her sophomore year, after recommendation from a professor.

But because of limited resources, the center at USF only offers up to ten free consultation sessions to students who need assistance with challenges in their lives. Students can take advantage of these sessions anytime during the school year, but when they reach their ten sessions, they are referred to services outside USF.

It was really frustrating to me that I began telling my entire life story to this one person, and then they said Our ten sessions are over, and that I would have to go somewhere else, Fernandez said.

The center at USF is intended to be brief and short-term oriented, Dale Hicks, director of the center, said.

Approximately 12.2 percent of students who participate in the centers counseling sessions are seen for ten or more sessions. Another 21.3 percent of students attended between six to ten sessions, and the remaining 66.5 percent of students participated in one to five sessions, according to the Counseling Centers 2011-12 Annual Report.

Many students bring in adjustment issues or short-term issues that we can deal with or wrap-up in a short amount of time, Hicks said. We simply dont have sufficient funding to see people on a long-term basis, and that is true for many counseling centers at universities all over the country.

Funding is provided to the center through the Student Health Fee that is billed to students at the beginning of each semester. At this time, the center is no longer receiving any educational and general (E & G) funding from the state because of budget cuts, which has left them with limited resources.

During the 2009-10 fiscal year, the Counseling Center received $108,691 from the state E & G funds, and only $7,135 in 2010-11.

Its accrediting body, the National Association of Counseling Services (NACS,) has held that the student to staff ratio at university counseling centers should be 1500 to 1. USFs ratio is 2,800 to 1, which is an improvement from its original 4,000 to 1, Hicks said.

In previous years, the center has seen an addition of approximately one staff member each school year, and Hicks contributed this addition to assistance from Student Government as well as the Local Fee Committee.

But the policy stating that students may only receive ten sessions is not completely set in stone.

The policy is that anyone can always come in for an initial appointment, Hicks said. We say we will always see you for another initial appointment, and at that time, we will evaluate if we can once again assist you in a short term format. And if we can, we will do that.

According to its report, the Counseling Center had 3,937 intake or initial appointments, and an additional 8,628 sessions following during the previous school year. Of these sessions, 71.1 percent of those participating presented concerns of coping with stress.

After ten counseling sessions, Fernandez said she continues to participate in the centers additional programs and services, which include group therapies, workshops, stress management and life skills sessions. Students can attend a variety of workshops through the center, which cover common pitfalls in student lives such as building healthier relationships, test anxiety, and understanding depression and anxiety.

Fernandez said she wished the Counseling Center would accept health insurance plans once a students initial ten sessions are complete, so students could continue their relationships with who they are seeing for a longer period of time.

I had to go through my insurance to find someone else, and I hated it, she said. I felt we were making progress and that I was beginning to be able to open up, and then I had to go and start over with someone else.

But Hicks said the center cannot charge for its services because its already receive funding from the Student Health Fee assessed each semester and it has mixed feelings about accepting health insurance.

We may actually start doing that for our psychiatry services within the next year, he said. We want everyone to come in, regardless of insurance, especially because many students are on their parents insurance.

For now, students who have been referred to outside practitioners for counseling services who do not have health insurance may be able to receive assistance with locating a new person or agency to visit.

We have a list of psychologists and other mental health practitioners who have agreed to see USF students for $40 if they do not have any insurance, Hicks said.

Hicks said that the more people know about the Counseling Center and the programs it provides, the more students utilize its services.

There are ways to receive more than 10 sessions, he said. We do allow certain students to be seen longer if it is in their clinical interest and need to do so… We will always assess if we can see someone again.