Counseling Center seeks to accommodate increasing need while fighting for funding

The USF Counseling Center sees around 350 students per week, but currently has only 19 full-time clinicians, including the administrative staff. ORACLE FILE PHOTO/JACKIE BENITEZ

Despite being denied additional funding during the 2016 legislative session, the State University System is making an effort to get more financial support to staff university counseling centers. 

Meanwhile, the USF Counseling Center is trying to manage the increasing need from students with its staff of fewer than 20 clinical professionals by diversifying its services.

The Center sees around 350 students per week, according to Lisa Ferdinand, interim co-director of the Counseling Center at USF. Ferdinand said the Center currently has 19 full-time clinicians, including the administrative staff.

The ratio of students to counselors is one to just over 2,000, Ferdinand said, which is above the target range established by the state of one to 1,500. 

The Center is feeling the effects of a demand for counseling services that has risen 48 percent since 2008-09 at public universities in Florida, Communications Director for the State University System of Florida Board of Governors Brittany Davis said.

“We know universities are feeling the strain nationally as well,” Davis said in an email to The Oracle. “… The State University System has increased its number of counselors and services to the extent possible, but the demand outpaces the ability to keep up.” 

Currently, there is a push in the Florida Legislature to give more funding to Counseling Centers in order to increase staffs. Puccio said this would be a great help to alleviate some of the pressure.

“We want to be able to provide as much services to the students as we can,” Joseph Puccio, interim co-director with Ferdinand and medical director for Student Health Services, said. “… With the increased needs for counseling services and the limit of our staff, we’re doing everything possible to meet those needs, but if granted the increased funding, we would be able to provide even more services.”

While the State University System waits to see if more funding will come, Puccio said it’s about the Center making the most of what they have.

“I think the key point is that we’re really trying to make the most out of the personnel that we do have and that there’s many different approaches depending on student response … and what their needs are at the specific moment that they need help,” Puccio said.

Currently, the Counseling Center is funded by the student health fee, with a total budget of $2,463,751 for this year, according to Ferdinand.

Ferdinand and Puccio said the Center has diversified its services with the staff that it has in order to meet demand at USF.

“So in addition to individual counseling … we also have many different groups that students can participate in,” Ferdinand said. “We also started using a program called TAO Connect, which is an online therapy assistive program, so that students can use lots of video conferencing. We can use video conferencing to communicate with students in between in-person sessions and students can also use a lot of video modules in between sessions …”

The Center has also introduced goal-oriented and solution focused model of counseling.

Students usually meet for an average of three to four sessions, Ferdinand said, and after two to three sessions, students are seeing improvement in their symptoms. The Counseling Center also has drop-in groups and information on their website for students to use in between sessions, and there is always an on-call counselor available every day.

Near the end of the semester, the Center offers shorter sessions in order to see more students during their busiest periods.

Davis said this kind of response to demand can be seen across the system. The challenges that the centers still face is setting up appointments in a timely manner and making sure students can keep coming back as needed.

“Specific issues include reduced time for prevention and outreach, longer wait times for students with non-critical needs, less effective treatments, staff burnout and turnover, and saturated or limited community resources,” Davis said in an email. “These needs can be addressed through more counselors.

“In the meantime, the universities will continue to not have the resources they need, which can impact grades, retention and safety. Our hope is that we can effectively make the case about the need to secure additional funds for mental health counselors and law enforcement.”

Ferdinand said what is important is to reach students and be able to provide them service before they reach a point where they are in a crisis. The goal is to keep students who aren’t in distress right now from getting to that point.

“… We never want students who are not in crisis to feel like they don’t have access to services, so we try to make sure that our model operates so that regardless of your level of distress, you’re able to get an appointment, because what’s happened at some other counseling centers is that only students who are sort of in acute crisis are able to get appointments quickly,” she said.

Despite this stress on the staff, Ferdinand said students will not be put on a waitlist at USF’s Counseling Center.  There are also walk-in sessions and a post-doctoral psychologist in Student Health Services who students can see if mental problems are causing physical symptoms.

According to Davis, 4,200 visits to counseling centers in the State University System during the 2013-14 academic year were emergency or crisis visits. Of those, most were associated with depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts.

“We are working to help the public understand that many of these are serious cases,” Davis said in an email. “While there has been some public discussion about ‘delicate snowflakes,’ those are not the students we are talking about here.”

Davis said comparisons made by two universities between students who used counseling center services and those who didn’t showed that use of the centers helped improve the students’ academic performance.

With the push for money to fund more staff still happening up in Tallahassee, Ferdinand said she is confident that the Counseling Center can continue to provide quality service for students in the meantime.

“Ideally, we should have many more resources and that would allow us to do more outreach, more consultation and offer different kinds of access, but I think with the resources we have we’ve been very strategic and creative and innovative in trying to continue to ensure that we’re meeting the needs of the students,” she said.