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Understaffing leaves counselors strained

Full-time Counseling Center staff resigned for better opportunities, leaving the remaining counselors to do the work of a staff at full capacity. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

Staff at the Tampa campus’ Counseling Center desire more institutional support as it faces increased pressure to maintain productivity while finding new hires amid understaffing.

Since the start of the 2021-22 academic year, the Counseling Center has seen severe losses in staff. Counseling Center Director Scott Strader said the center currently has 21 positions filled. To be considered fully staffed, there needs to be about 25 clinical staff members.

The Counseling Center currently has one counselor per 1,705 students, a reality that is causing stress among individual full-time staff members, according to Strader.

Clinical Coordinator and licensed psychologist at the Counseling Center Meghan Butler explained that the issue involves a turnover in the number of positions it had been able to fill.

“I’ve been [at the Counseling Center] for about four years, and we’ve had about 20 clinicians who’ve cycled in and out during that time,” she said. “Our problem right now is that we can’t seem to hire as fast as we are losing [staff members].”

Overall, the causes of these losses have been systematically based. Butler said USF doesn’t utilize an advancement structure, a system that rewards long-term employees with better pay and different responsibilities.

This has been a move made by other universities, but USF has yet to follow suit, according to Butler. The deficit is also one of the primary reasons why the Counseling Center is struggling to maintain experienced psychologists.

She said the Counseling Center has submitted plans for such a structure to be implemented, but so far they have not been enacted.

USF has been able to attract entry-level psychologists, but many of its full-time psychologists have been leaving for more appealing opportunities, according to Butler.

She also expressed that the resources allotted to the department are not substantial to meet the standards of the country’s current labor market.

“There’s been a shift to workers demanding more flexibility and wanting greater compensation for pay with the cost of living going up significantly,” Butler said.

“If we’re competing even for the same providers who want to move back to Florida and want to work in a college counseling center, they don’t choose us. We work later hours and we pay less. So they go to other places … and have more options, and we’re just not offering a competitive package anymore.”

In the wake of these losses, the remaining staff members are doing the work of a Counseling Center at full capacity. This also involves allocating time to scout for new counselors, in addition to a personal caseload.

The Counseling Center’s leadership has been trying to alleviate unnecessary strain by ensuring that remaining staff do not work more than their contracted 40 hours, according to Strader. This involves preventing more clients from being added to individual caseloads.

Strader said the Counseling Center has taken on three doctoral interns, four post-doctoral fellows undergoing training and three part-time graduate student clinicians.

Licensed psychologist Jordie Poncy said the Counseling Center has also begun distributing responsibilities among staff. Staff members have been training newcomers, assisting in the hiring process and transferring clients among each other when needed.

“You take on added responsibility in addition to your caseload intensifying — it might not increase, but it definitely intensifies in acuity … that’s what you have to consider,” Counseling Center licensed counselor Jason Axford said.

Psychologists at the Counseling Center have seen their workload increase, but there hasn’t been a need for overtime as they have seen a decrease in the number of students seeking services over the last two school years.

During the 2019-20 academic year, 4,265 students were recorded to have made appointments, according to Strader. So far in the 2021-22 year, the Counseling Center has seen 2,360 students, as of Jan. 31.

Understaffing has affected the well-being of some USF psychologists, according to Axford. There has been a significant drop in morale among psychologists due to the losses, leading to burnout among the remaining staff.

“It affects me, and that’s just energy-wise. When it comes to focus and concentration, that also impacts me, because there are some lingering worries that I might have,” Axford said.

“Did I assess correctly? Was I supportive? Did I maintain the basic unconditional, positive regard [for clients]? Other areas of your life are compromised.”

This issue continues to impact the students and Counseling Center staff alike. In the long term, wait times may increase in accessing services and in between appointments, according to Butler. It also leads to a loss of beneficial resources in long-term professional psychologists.

“When you lose staff, you lose a lot of institutional knowledge,” she said. “If you get somebody who’s only been here six months or less … that kind of facilitative stuff gets lost.”

Butler said continuity of care also decreases. With staff numbers constantly changing, there is an increased chance that a counselor a student saw one school year would no longer be on staff the next year.

“It really means you’re starting over from scratch with somebody new who has your records but doesn’t know you,” she said. “I think it changes the experience and the kind of continuity over time.”

Remaining staff have been utilizing various initiatives to continue providing access to students while compensating for losses. Numerous initiatives have been implemented in an effort to combat these longer wait times.

The Counseling Center has also partnered with Student Government to purchase Togetherall to supplement their telehealth services.

Using Togetherall, students can make appointments and receive resources for when they are in-between appointments. The platform also offers support to students not actively pursuing services.

Another initiative to improve wait times has been the requirement of students to complete intake paperwork prior to scheduling appointments. In doing so, the Counseling Center has been able to cut no-show rates and save clinical hours. Butler said this has led to more student investment.

Axford asserted that, in order for long term changes to be made, there must be intentional systemic changes.

“Mental health is health. [USF leadership] has got to put their money where their mouth is,” he said.

“I think the university would meet all of their strategic goals for the future if they really got behind counseling, mental health and other support services that directly impact the well-being of the student body.”