The Salisbury University Counseling Center is losing nearly half of its full-time staff amid scrutiny over how the facility is supported by the university.
The center’s Director Lilian Odera and Counselor Sabrina Sahle have each resigned from their respective positions at the facility, leaving the center with just two full-time counselors as Assistant Director Nikki Dyer assumes the role of acting director.
SU is now well below the minimum staffing requirements for counseling services based on campus population, according to the International Accreditation of Counseling Services (IACS) Standards for University and College Counseling Services, an internationally accredited body for setting counseling standards at college campuses.
“Every effort should be made to maintain minimum staffing ratios in the range of one full-time equivalent professional staff member (excluding trainees) for every 1,000 - 1,500 students, depending on services offered and other campus mental health agencies,” per the standards.
Home to 8,617 total students, per the university’s strategic plan, SU was already under the minimum requirement of eight full-time staff members before the resignations of Odera and Sahle, employing a total of five.
The university now has less than 50% of the minimum standard following the two departures, with three full-time employees remaining, including two full-time counselors.
This student to full-time counselor ratio of over 4,300 - 1 is a stark contrast to the national average of 1,600 - 1 for four-year institutions, according to the National Survey of College Counseling Centers.
Sahle said the center had consistently been lobbying for the hiring of at least two more full-time counselors before she resigned, though formal hires never materialized.
The former SU counselor points to a disconnect between the Counseling Center and Student Affairs as cause for the lack of support and turmoil surrounding the facility.
“I think if there were clear communication and transparency and understanding of what’s going on, I think [the struggles] could have been resolved, but I don’t think it exists,” Sahle said.
Sahle compared the center asking for more resources and staffing to not being able to receive basic needs of survival.
“It feels like when someone is asking for food … we need food because we need to [survive,]” Sahle said.
Those struggles are not new, however, as Sahle said there has been a constant battle for support since she first arrived to SU to work as a part-time counselor in 2014 well before Odera’s arrival.
“It’s always been an issue with a lack of resources and understanding, that’s been the main issue since the beginning,” Sahle said. “With the lack of personnel, not knowing what to do, the lack of direction and students coming in for their needs and crises, it became so overwhelming.”
Sahle said she was hopeful when Odera was appointed director of the center because she was “good at sharing her vision [and] goals and listening to us,” believing there were better days to come in the near future.
But Sahle said Odera, who came to SU from a similar position at Towson University, became “drained” from constantly asking for more support and resources, eventually becoming overwhelmed herself.
Odera’s final day as director was Feb. 16, which came just over one calendar year since she was hired by the university.
Sahle, whose last day as a counselor was Feb. 17, said Odera’s decision to leave was the final straw in making her own choice to resign, fearing a return to an even worse state for the Counseling Center may be imminent.
“I couldn’t imagine myself going back to how it used to be [before Odera’s arrival,]” Sahle said.
While Odera has already accepted a position at Tulane University, Sahle said she may decide to wait before entertaining taking another position to reset from her time at SU.
“I felt like I wasn’t functioning well in terms of giving it all that I needed to serve students and be present during sessions,” Sahle said. “I was getting overwhelmed and stressed [from] the lack of support, [and] meetings are always full of frustrations [from] not being able to get what we wanted.
“I just want to take couple of months and know that I’m ready to find a job that I can be fully invested in … I don’t think it would be fair to the clients I would be serving to dive in right now.”
President Charles Wight said he was “very disappointed” to learn about the two departures, calling it “a great loss for Salisbury University” during SU’s first town hall of the semester.
Wight said the university will recover, however, and pointed to the “very effective” hiring practices of Student Affairs to refill those positions with “great new people.”
Vice President of Student Affairs Dane Foust has said those search processes are already underway.
Sahle warns that the several recent search committees have been misleading because, while it may seem that more resources are being allocated to the center, the search committees are merely backfilling vacant positions, not adding additional needed staffing.
Sahle believes university administrators must reevaluate the Counseling Center’s needs desperately, especially given the “skyrocketing demand” for mental health services as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention published data in August detailing how more than one in four Americans aged 18-24 years old “seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days,” while 40% of adults admitted to experiencing struggles with their mental health during that same period.
If SU intends to continue advertising an emphasis on mental health to prospective incoming students, the center “should be given more priority” and much greater investment, Sahle said.
By JAKOB TODD
Featured image courtesy of AboutFeed.