Still without new hires to backfill past resignations, the Salisbury University Counseling Center’s limited resources are now treating students facing emergencies and forced to refer all others to outside mental health services.
The center’s Director Lilian Odera and Counselor Sabrina Sahle each resigned from their respective positions at the facility in February, citing a lack of support and necessary resources to adequately perform their responsibilities.
The moves left the center with just two full-time counselors as Assistant Director Nikki Dyer assumed the role of acting director. The two counselors are now tasked with accommodating a student population of 8,124 individuals, based on a Fall 2020 campus census.
This student to full-time counselor ratio of over 4,000 - 1 for SU 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.
Dyer said changes to the center’s operations were unavoidable due to a combination of the resignations and an increased demand for the center’s services, eventually becoming a challenge of how to “be the most accessible to the most people that we could” with limited staffing.
The center has collected data indicating a recent gradual increase in contacts from students, rising at least 125% since 2007, and Dyer said she expects the trend to only continue to mount despite the facility’s limited resources.
College students nationwide are expected to increase the demand for mental health services in Fall 2021 as universities plan for greater in-person operations and combat the lasting effects of the pandemic, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, a research group made up of college counseling centers.
More than half of the nearly 50,000 students surveyed nationally who sought mental health services during the pandemic reported COVID-19 had negatively impacted their mental health, motivation and feelings of isolation and loneliness. One-third cited pandemic-related factors as cause for seeking mental health services.
“It will be essential for colleges and universities to be attentive, prepared, resourced and creative to address the ongoing and future challenges encountered by students due to the pandemic, especially as they re-integrate to pre-COVID-19 student life,” the researchers concluded.
Yet, the center’s staff has only dwindled in recent months, not risen with the demand, and has required the facility to delegate the services it was intended to provide.
“I really don’t know how [SU] is getting away with this,” said Carly Nascimbeni, founder of the Honors College’s Mental Health Committee.
Nascimbeni created the new coalition after discovering the center’s understaffing crisis to provide supplemental mental health services for students, and she believes hiring more counselors is the only way to restore the facility’s effectiveness.
Dyer said the center was forced to begin referring students to outside services so the limited staff could still assist students in emergency situations within reasonable timeframes, arising as the only way to preserve its essential functions.
“We are avoiding what we knew we could not [allow to] happen: having students with urgent needs or critical safety issues waiting for too long,” Dyer said. “We are making [these changes] out of necessity.”
Vice President of Student Affairs Dane Foust said search processes are underway to fill the vacant director position as well as two full-time counselor positions. One of the counselors would serve as a multicultural specialist, while the other would act as a group specialist to backfill the role originally vacated by Sahle.
Those search processes have yet to produce successful hires, however, as multiple candidates have only declined the counselor positions thus far, Foust said. SU administration is investigating the potential causes, such as cost of living and salary requirements.
While those hires would double the center’s current total of full-time counselors to four, the facility would still remain below the average student to full-time counselor ratio nationally.
Nascimbeni called on university administrators to overhaul SU’s current hiring practices to alleviate the struggles faced during several recent search processes conducted for Counseling Center positions.
“It’s an administrative problem,” Nascimbeni said. “SU needs to step up and hire more people so the Counseling Center can offer services in-house.”
Nascimbeni urged for creative solutions to provide the center with additional staffing, such as bringing in full-time or adjunct SU faculty members with master’s degrees in social work to serve as therapists to assist the counselors or targeting more local applicants.
Dyer agreed the most pressing goal of the center is to fill the currently vacant positions, which would then allow its staff members to return to their individual responsibilities and most effective roles.
“Once everyone is in place, you are then maximizing the positions of the people who are already here,” Dyer said.
In the interim, outside service referrals will be determined by the student’s location and specialist preferences, as well as insurance and financial considerations.
SU is offering to cover up to two copays for outside services, though the offer is only valid if the student has approved insurance and is treated by Atlantic Psychological Practice, a local provider within walking distance of the university.
Although, Nascimbeni said the offer still leaves several critical campus groups uncovered and with few viable options for mental health treatment.
“[SU is] still not really taking care of our students who don’t have insurance, and that’s a big problem,” Nascimbeni said. “Particularly students who come from disadvantaged population groups, those are often the students who need [services] the most, and we’re just increasing treatment gaps by not offering these services to our marginalized population groups.”
While there are no rigid guidelines to qualify an individual’s circumstances as an “emergency,” Dyer provided broad examples such as having thoughts of harming oneself or others, surviving physical or sexual assault or showing severe mental health symptoms, like hallucinations or delusions, suggestive of more severe mental health problems.
Dyer said the center is still working with students who do not have insurance and are facing non-emergencies to try to find solutions, such as identifying outside facilities that structure payment based on income level or offer pro bono services, as well as avenues for applying for insurance.
“We’re never going to just terminate services [with a student] without some type of plan to pursue,” Dyer said. “There is no circumstance that could mean a student could not access the counseling center for crisis resources.”
By JAKOB TODD
Featured image courtesy of Relate Foundation.